Articles from the January/February 2014 issue of the Industrial Worker.
Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)
Contractualism should be avoided
This is in response to FW Matt Muchowski’s article titled “The Contract As A Tactic,” which appeared on page 4 of the December 2013 Industrial Worker. While I disagree with most of it, this piece is the most coherent justification of contractualism for the IWW I’ve seen. The reasons behind going for a contract are very rarely talked about in this way, so the article is worth taking seriously and considering the author’s points.
FW Muchowski correctly asserts that the IWW has a legacy of no contracts; however, he attributes this to the lack of “legal structure(s) for unions to win legal recognition. On IWW.org, a similar explanation is given. This explanation is wrong, though. The IWW’s views on contracts have always been more sophisticated than what the labor law of the day has been. Overall, contracts have been regarded with great suspicion. This has had little to do with the existence of “legal structures” (most of which we were against or critical of) and more to do with an analysis of what contractualism would lead to.
The author then goes on to blame the disintegrating presence of the IWW in Lawrence after the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike on not having a contract. This is usually what anti-Wobbly liberal and Communist Party-sympathetic labor historians say, so it’s a little surprising to see this opinion expressed in the IW. It’s also an absolutely inadequate explanation of what happened. If the ongoing presence of the IWW so relied on having a formal, legal contract with the employers, then how could Local 8—the IWW dockworkers of Philadelphia who went on strike in May 1913—exist? Local 8, for most of its era, operated without a contract. The difference between Local 8 and the textile strikers in Lawrence, however, was one of organization. The Lawrence model was to throw a supporting cast of organizers into a situation that was already on the verge of blowing up; it was a “hot shop,” in other words. Local 8, on the other hand, built an organization with a purpose and from the ground up.
Local 8, along with many other noncontractual models, offers an antidote to the false and seemingly dishonest dichotomy that is often set up when talking about this issue, which is contractualism versus all-out revolution. No one who argues against or is suspicious of formal, legal agreements with employers is necessarily drawing up blueprints for the barricades.
Similarly, Muchowski frames anticontractualism as “ideological” while what he advocates is not. Suggesting that a position is “ideological” and therefore extreme or irrational is a common rhetorical trick in politics, and it works well as it appeals to what is assumed to be “common sense.” But just because it’s a neat and effective trick does not mean that what it is expressing is true. The use of ideology, or examples of it, as a swear word, means that it is something that is based on beliefs rather than reality or experience. But being against or suspicious of contractualism is not merely “ideological.” It has a long history in the radical labor movement, full of examples and historical lineage. Contractualism, on the other hand, has only hypothetical scenarios and “what if” possibilities, divorced from any concrete reality
Solidarity unionism, for example, can be traced all the way back to the old IWW, through the rank-and-file members of militant Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) locals, to labor radicals like Martin Glaberman and Stan Weir (who saw clearly the downside of contractualism), on through the New Left labor history revisionists who rejected the institutional and top-down accounts of labor movements, and finally to the numerous conversations that resulted in the modern-day IWW creating our own model of what solidarity unionism could be. Arguments for contractualism have no similar basis rooted in actual experiences of radical labor.
Many of the activities and tasks the article lists as being possible with a contract are not inherent to that model. Spreading our views, finding out our co-workers’ issues and building for demands are just a part of organizing and happens in every IWW campaign worth its salt.
Lastly, FW Muchowski addresses the problematic issue of limitations placed on the union in contracts. His solution to this is “we don’t have to agree to anything we don’t want to.” But a century of contractualism has established no-strike clauses, management rights clauses and disempowering grievance procedures as the norms. I would argue that after the point in which it is obvious the union has won or is going to win, these are the most important issues for the employer, exceeding wages and benefits. To exclude these things in a contract would take serious organization within the workplace. If you do have the capacity to impose these sorts of demands, which are expected minimum norms for contracts, then why have a contract at all? With that type of power we can have the ability to impose a lot without getting caught up in state-enforced limitations.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)
All in a day’s work: life and labor in the day labor industry
An article by Everett Martinez about the day labor industry in the construction trades.
Whether it means the arduous toil of building a house or the technical knowhow required to unclog a home septic system, “day labor” is the catch-all term for an industry defined by its instability, unreliability and illegality for those who work in it. A thick veil of myths, misinformation and racism distorts the public’s understanding of day labor and inhibit the ability of labor organizers to extend solidarity to this alarmingly vulnerable segment of the working class.
I work for a small construction company in northern New Jersey. Both the company I work for and the companies we find ourselves partnering with—whose areas of work cover everything from construction to logging, landscaping, plumbing, etc.—use day labor as their main, if not only, source of labor. This article is intended to share my observations on the nature of work in the day labor industry, the relationship between laborers and their employers, and the possibilities for helping laborers to organize themselves. Hopefully this information will enable us as comrades of day laborers to provide them with the solidarity and working-class unity they deserve.
The Working Day
Perhaps the most pervasive myth about day labor is that a laborer works for different employers every day. We tend to imagine day laborers as waiting outside of Home Depot for an employer who picks up whoever happens to be standing outside at the time. In my experience, nothing has been further from the truth: most laborers are employed by the same employer consistently, often working for the same one for years at a time.
Employment occurs on a job-by-job basis. A laborer and an employer will be in contact with each other, and the employer will contact the laborer whenever work is needed. As the term suggests, the worker is employed by day; at the end of one working day, the employer will tell the worker to be at the employer’s shop, or the employer will arrange a certain meeting place at a certain time the next day. Laborers are paid in cash at the end of each day—in my experience, laborers are paid around $10 to $12 per hour.
John Smith Plumbing Company, for instance—our obviously fictitious company— will get a call to unclog a family’s drain. In turn, the owner of John Smith Plumbing will call the laborer(s) he employs and arrange a time and place to pick them up. The employer drives the laborers to the job and work begins.
The main buyers of day labor are small businesses, which are most of the time owned and operated by a single person. John Smith Plumbing is owned by John Smith, who is the company’s only permanent member. He is the president, treasurer, advertiser and hiring department. He owns all of the plumbing equipment as his personal property, handles all of the advertising and networking, and in general undertakes all the administrative functions of the company.
From the standpoint of the law, John Smith is selfemployed. He does not report his day laborers as employees. Thus, even though they’re employed by the same employer every day, just as someone who works at Dunkin’ Donuts is employed by Dunkin’ Donuts every day, laborers employed by John Smith enjoy no long-term benefits. There is no paid time off available to accrue after a certain period of employment, no health care coverage, and no chance for more stable employment. Moreover, if a laborer calls in sick, it is very likely that the laborer will not be called back by that employer in the future. Ironically, employers view these workers as “unreliable.”
Since the construction industries, unlike the food industry, have not been centralized into the hands of multinational corporations, any number of these neighborhood companies will be operating in the same general area. In the age of globalization and the movement of manufacturing and manual labor out of the West, this local, decentralized and labor-intensive industry is an interesting divergence from the industries Western labor organizers are used to organizing.
Laborers & Employers
One of the strangest dynamics of day labor is the incredibly casual nature of the relationship between day laborers and employers. This is not to say that day labor is not hard work or that day laborers are “friends” with their employers. Rather, the relationship between a laborer and his employer is marked by the employer undertaking tasks formal employers never do.
I have personally never witnessed an employer hire more than four laborers in one job, meaning that employers don’t communicate with their laborers as “line bosses” charged with measuring the productivity and discipline of a large workforce. On the other hand, the dynamic is much more personal: on the way from one job to the next there are personal conversations, the car radio will be on, etc. The employer and the laborer(s) usually eat meals together—the length of the workday usually includes both breakfast and lunch—and the employer will usually buy one of the meals for his laborer. Additionally, the employer often charges himself with buying personal equipment for his laborers: work gloves, boots and the like.
These seemingly benevolent gestures, taken in the context of a seemingly personal employer-employee relationship, may hinder organizing. During unionization campaigns, we often see employers try to manipulate these sorts of things: “we’re a mom-and-pop company,” “employees are part of the company,” etc.
Day Labor: No Place in the Business Union?
The common portrayal of the day laborer is that of an undocumented Latino man, usually speaking little English, who often has a family to support. In my experience, this is by no means inaccurate; all day laborers I’ve worked with are indeed Latino men who speak little English. I can’t comment on their citizenship status but I would be inclined to assume most are not documented due to the under-the-table, undocumented nature of day labor, including the fact that employers do not report them as employees. Obviously, it is safe to assume that if day laborers had the opportunity to move to more formal, regulated employment, employers would report them as employees. One can only assume, then, that they do not have this opportunity, presumably due to their citizenship status.
The extreme vulnerability of being an undocumented worker is heightened by the mainstream labor movement’s disinterest (or inability) in helping them organize themselves. Despite the necessity of day labor to keeping our society’s infrastructure intact, a variety of factors have caused the modern labor movement to pass over the day labor industry as a potential for organizing efforts.
Day laborers have no avenue of recourse if they are victimized by their employer. Imagine that you were in this country illegally. Would you trust a government institution like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to properly defend you against wage theft? In fact, would you even know of the NLRB, of labor laws in this country, and of how to exercise these rights? Would you trust that, upon reporting your employer to the NLRB, the NLRB wouldn’t just have you and your family deported?
When day laborers do not organize themselves, employers have total power over the conditions of laborers’ work. There is no record that a day laborer ever worked for an employer, and the employer knows a laborer will not report illegal practices. What, then, does an individual laborer do if the employer simply decides not to pay him at the end of the day? What does a laborer do if the employer pays him below minimum wage? Do laborers new to the country even know minimum wage laws for their state? What does a laborer do if the employer forces laborers to use dangerous machinery without properly instructing them how to use it or without providing them with necessary safety equipment?
Conclusion: Potentials for Solidarity Unionism
Day labor is not conventional labor, but the IWW is certainly not a conventional union. If we are interested in helping day laborers to organize themselves, we must adopt innovative and creative tactics to respond to the unique challenges of the industry.
The first key problem is the lack of a definable workforce. As previously stated, most companies employ no more than four laborers at a time, and these laborers are not even officially employed with the company. If an individual laborer, or even a small group of them, were to refuse unsafe or unfair working conditions, the employer can easily replace them. There is no shortage of day labor, and there is no process the employer must initiate to fire a day laborer beyond not calling them back. Thus, day labor must be organized geographically, not by employer. If all the day laborers in a given area refused to work for, say, under $10 per hour, an employer would have virtually no choice but to concede. This, I believe, is where the General Membership Branch and industrial structure of the IWW would be most effectively instituted.
Secondly, due to the state’s open hostility to undocumented peoples, attempts to force concessions from employers cannot rely on state mechanisms like the NLRB. This is perhaps where the nature of day labor can be used to the laborers’ advantage: most day labor jobs are based in the construction and infrastructure industries, and these jobs have tight deadlines. You have to dig a foundation in 10 days, you have to unclog a person’s drain in an hour, etc. The employer has no time to deal with laborers refusing work. If they refuse work, the job doesn’t get done. If the job doesn’t get done, the company gets taken off the job, and the employer doesn’t get paid.
The urgency of the work can be used as a weapon against the employer. Imagine this scenario: John Smith of John Smith Plumbing gets a call to unclog a family’s drain. He drives himself and one laborer to the house to begin fixing the drain. In the past, John Smith has underpaid his laborers, making excuses like, “You didn’t work hard enough today so I’m only going to give you $80 instead of our agreed-upon $120.” The laborer John Smith brought along has been the victim of this but has stayed with Smith due to the lack of work. When John Smith and his laborer get to the drain call, the laborer refuses to leave the truck until Smith pays him $200 he owes in sto-len wages. Every minute wasted by this work refusal is a minute the customer has to pay for, and if the customer sees no work is being done, the customer will easily just take John Smith Plumbing off the job and call another company. Moreover, Smith and his laborer are already at the job site; Smith doesn’t have time to find another laborer—that may take hours, and by that time the customer will have definitely found another draincleaning service.
If a geographical network of day laborers was established, there would be little need for contracts or legal interventions— workers’ power could be expressed on the job through economic actions.
All in all, the day labor industry is an industry which would be a unique challenge to organize, but it is an industry in which the IWW’s model of organizing would thrive. As a worker employed alongside day laborers, it would seem to me as though day laborers’ only hope for winning better working conditions is through the solidarity-based approach to unionism and work-place justice provided by the IWW. It would be a serious betrayal to our undocumented, hyper-exploited, and hyper-vulnerable comrades in the day labor industry if we did not offer them our full support and solidarity. I offer these observations in hopes that they will persuade my fellow workers to take an interest in the struggles of day laborers in their areas.
Everett Martinez is a Wobbly employed in the lumber and construction industries, and is part of the current initiative to build a strong IWW presence in New Jersey. She can be contacted at iww. [email protected].
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)
Sick to myself
An account by Scott Nappalos about calling in sick.
1 a.m… 3:50... 3:55... 4 a.m. I rise from bed bleary-eyed. Standing makes me cough. “Great a new symptom,” I think to myself. Walking to the bathroom, the day before me goes through my head. Pacing down the halls, lifting patients, comforting families, dealing with managers; the flood of images makes me weary. I remember days I worked while sick, greeting a patient while gently trying to hold the snot from running down my face, ducking out of a room to sneeze, sitting heavy on the toilet to let my body rest. You read lab values through a tired haze and hide hot tea with honey on the computer carts to make your voice less monstrous. Working sick assails you. I can imagine my day, and it isn’t pretty.
Clear mucous runs across my lip.
“What about my co-workers? Will enough people be there? Will they have miserable days because I’m awake at 4 a.m. with a cold?”
The night before I had waffled about whether to call in or not. The consequences of calling out stick with you.
“What happened? You been out drinking?”
“Remember call out three times in six months and it’s a write-up.”
At other hospitals I worked in you would be yelled at, disciplined, suspended, or even fired for calling in sick. The bosses made it very clear that being sick was a transgression. When you worked shortstaffed from others calling in, you felt it too.
Working short-staffed with no sympathy from anyone, we were alone with our curses too often.
“I bet he called out because he’s drunk.”
“She’s always calling out, especially on the weekends.”
Nurses frequently would blame each other for our misery, shortstaffed from someone falling ill. The worse it got at work, the more call-outs there are. Even an anarchist like myself internalized this. I felt guilty for being sick, and it seemed like I was imposing the extra work on my tired co-workers.
The problem is that illness is part of the game. Health care workers are exposed to more illness, and experience extreme working conditions and the long-term stress that wears down the immune system. The results are predictable. People will get sick. In many hospitals, however, sick time was eliminated and replaced with general comp time, a.k.a. rolling sick days and vacation into one category that constantly pushes people to work while sick. The real issue is that management can see the numbers and knows how many people will be sick yearly, and yet refuses to hire enough people to take that pressure off us to work with a bug.
This is in spite of the fact that countless studies show health care workers spreading potentially fatal illnesses to patients in hospitals. It’s not complicated if you think about it. Many viruses are spread by droplets in our breath or our body secretions. Well-meaning health care workers have a hard time avoiding coughing, sneezing, blowing their noses, or rubbing something they shouldn’t rub when under the gun. You wash your hands constantly, but all it takes is one little slip to spread things to patients. Illnesses spread by health care workers remains a significant cause of serious illness and death in hospitals and care facilities.
The problem runs deeper than just money or punishments. Working at a place with paid sick days and lacking a culture of punishing those who call in sick, many of us still blame ourselves for the situation at work. Today we are repressed more by our own internalization of power than by force. That is what we have to fight against. The problem isn’t in us as individuals, or the fact that life makes us sick sometimes. The problem is a system constantly pressuring all hospitals to meet its challenges with our bodies and those of our patients. Work runs like clockwork, but it is a machine built out of human bodies; bodies that are vulnerable. An answer isn’t completely obvious, but any solution we will find will be collective; working together to use our power for something more human.
At 4:05 a.m., I called in sick.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)
A look at late 19th century French socialist thought
A review by Heath Row of the book The Anarchism of Jean Grave: Editor, Journalist, and Militant.
Patsouras, Louis. The Anarchism of Jean Grave: Editor, Journalist, and Militant. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2003. Paperback, 207 pages, $24.99.
Louis Patsouras, formerly a history professor at Kent State University and the author of two previous books about the French anarchist and socialist, is perhaps the primary booster of Jean Grave, an otherwise unsung compatriot of Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Elisee Reclus. Having penned several relatively slim volumes about the editor of La Revolte and Les Temps Nouveaux; including the 1978 “Jean Grave and French Anarchism,” the 1995 “Jean Grave and the Anarchist Tradition in France,” and this now decadeold largely biographical book; Patsouras has done much to keep the memory of Grave’s life and work alive—even if very little of Grave’s writing is available in English translation.
One of few prominent socialist thinkers born into a working-class family, Grave was the son of a miller who later turned shoemaker. Moving to Paris in 1860, Grave went to Catholic school and apprenticed with master workmen before getting involved with the professionally oriented revolutionary Blanquists and the Paris Commune. After the fall of the Commune, Grave became involved in an anarchist group, helped form the Social Study Group, and became more involved in anarcho-communist journalism and propaganda, as well as propaganda by deed.
In 1883, Grave became the editor of La Revolte, which had been founded by Kropotkin in 1879. Grave saw the widely influential paper through the introduction of a literary supplement that became embroiled in an intellectual property dispute as the result of republishing writers’ works without paying them and a name change to La Revolte before he was imprisoned for inciting mutiny and violence through his writings. The editor was also a principal in the Trial of the Thirty, which targeted criminals and terrorists as well as political activists, conflating propaganda by deed with the political philosophies that inspired it.
Upon his release from jail, Grave founded a new weekly, Les Temps Nouveaux. With the help of contributors such as Kropotkin and Reclus, Grave’s journalism and pamphleteering continued to advocate for anarcho-syndicalism and mutual aid in opposition to individualism until World War I, during which he emerged to the surprise of many as prowar. The prolific but heavily censored scribe contended that the primary issue was not war per se, but foreign domination, which should be fought. Grave was also anti-communist.
In addition to offering a laudable biographical sketch of Grave, Patsouras considers the French anarchist’s support of progressive art and literature as well as politics; the utopian underpinnings of his work; parallels to bourgeois contemporaries, as well as later writers such as Simone Weil, Albert Camus, and Jean- Paul Sartre; and his ongoing relevance in the current day. The last six chapters of the text, which largely provide contextualization rather than biographical detail, feel a little disjointed and ill-fitting. Regardless, it is incontestable that the work of Grave still has value, and the book is worth reading for the first 10 chapters alone.
This book, along with Patsouras’s preceding efforts, is important, but inadequate to fully shed light on Grave’s thoughts, ideals, and contributions to later anarcho-syndicalist discourse. What’s sorely needed are English translations of Grave’s writings as primary source: the memoir “Quarante ans de propagande anarchiste,” the novel “La Grande famille,” the propaganda by deed primer “Organisation de la propagande revolutionnaire,” and the theoretical text “La Societe mourante et l’anarchie.” Shawn P. Wilbur’s recently inactive blog “Working Translations” offers a partial translation of Grave’s fiction for children “The Adventures of Nono,” and Robert Graham’s “Anarchism Weblog” provides excerpts from “La Societe mourante et l’anarchie,” but full-text translations appear to be unavailable.
Fellow Wobblies: Who’s up to the task of translating these materials?
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)
Industrial Worker (March 2014)
March 2014 issue of the Industrial Worker.
Being a woman organizer isn’t easy
An article by Luz Sierra about the gendered expectations she has faced within her family and culture.
This past year I became politically active. I went from being completely unaware of the existence of radical politics to doing organizing work in Miami with an anarchist perspective. It has been both a rewarding and difficult journey, yet gender seems to haunt me wherever I go. I am probably not the first woman to experience this, but I believe that I should demonstrate how this is a real issue and provide my personal insight for other women to have a reference point for their own struggles.
Being raised by Nicaraguan parents and growing up in Miami’s Latin community, I have firsthand experience with the sexist culture in South Florida. Many families that migrated from South and Central America and the Caribbean arrived to the United States carrying traditions from the 1970s and 1980s. Daughters are raised by women who were taught that their goal in life is to be an obedient wife and to devote their time to raising children and making their husbands happy. Latin women are supposed to be modest, self-reserved, have the ability to fulfill domestic roles and be overall submissive. Some Hispanic families might not follow this social construction, but there are still a large number of them who insert this moral into their households. For instance, this social construct is apparent in the previous three generations of my father’s and mother’s families. My great grandmothers, grandmothers, mother and aunts never completed their education and spend the majority of their life taking care of their husbands and children. Meanwhile, various male members of my current and extended family had the opportunity to finish their education, some even received college degrees, and went on to become dominant figures in their households. The male family members also had the chance to do as they pleased for they left all household and childcare responsibilities to their wives. As the cycle continued, my mother and grandmothers attempted to socialize me to fulfill my expected female role. I was taught not to engage in masculine activities such as sports, academia, politics, and other fields where men are present. Unfortunately for them, I refused to obey their standards of femininity. I have played sports since I was 10 years old; I grew a deep interest in history, sociology and political science; and I am currently part of three political projects. Such behavior has frustrated my parents to the point that I am insulted daily. My mother will claim that I am manly, selfish for devoting more time to organizing and promiscuous because the political groups I am involved with consist mostly of men. My father will state that I am senseless for wasting my time in politics and should devote more time in preparing myself to become a decent wife and mother.
Throughout my 20 years residing in Miami, I met women from various countries. In school, at work as a certified nursing assistant, and in politics, I have met women from Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica, Nepal and the Philippines who share similar stories. Each one of them revealed how they are oppressed at home. They are forced to conform to gender roles and follow traditional standards of being a woman. Some have tried to deviate from those roles, yet the pressure from their loved ones is so powerful that they often compromise with their families to not be disowned. There are some who are able to fight against the current, but consequentially, they are insulted, stigmatized and can sometimes go on to develop depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. I myself have experienced such emotional meltdowns and still do. I recovered from depression in 2013 after receiving therapy for over six months, and I am currently battling with social anxiety and low self-esteem. Nevertheless, I still manage to maintain my integrity and will continue to do so to keep fighting.
Hearing the stories and witnessing the sorrow of all the women who are blatant victims of patriarchy has inspired me to keep moving forward as an organizer. Watching my mother be passive with my father, witnessing my sisters being forced to display undesirable traits, and watching the tears women have shed after sharing their unfortunate stories of living under the oppressive rule of male figures has allowed me to turn anger into energy devoted to creating a society where women are no longer oppressed. I am tired of having to face gender inequality and watching women fall into its traps. We cannot continue to neglect this issue and endure these obstacles alone. As revolutionary women, we must take these matters seriously and find strategies and solutions to overcome them.
One way to start facing this struggle is by sharing our personal experience with one another and recognizing the problems we deal with today. We cannot keep denying and repressing our frustration of gender inequality. It needs to be released. How can we expect to create a social revolution when we rarely lay our personal tribulations on the table? I know it is hard to discuss the issues we face at home, at work or within political circles. It is even difficult for me to write this article, but we need to stop letting barriers obstruct us. I remember I was petrified when I initially spoke about my personal problems with a comrade. I thought she would not understand me and would think I was annoying her, but after exposing my story, I soon realized she faced the same hardships and abuse too and was sympathetic to my situation. This really transformed my life because I thought I always had to wait to talk to my therapist about these dilemmas, but I was completely wrong. There are people out there who are willing to listen and provide support; it is up to us to reach out to them. I came to understand that gender issues still exist and that my hardships are real. Through simple actions like talking and building relationships, I believe we can form a collective of people willing to create tactics to abolish such oppression. This is how Mujeres Libres formed and created a tendency within the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo and Federación Anarquista Ibérica that faced gender inequality. They were able to grow in numbers and seize the power to fight in the forefront of the Spanish Revolution. This could be achieved today if we place our hearts and minds to it. Many of us might say that our current social setting and capacity will make that impossible, but how would we know if we have not tried yet? This is why I encourage all revolutionary women to stop secondguessing themselves and fight. Let’s end the silence now and begin to form the solidarity that is needed.
Around the union: Mobile Rail workers win, Wobblies organize worldwide
Updates on various IWW activity.
“Around The Union” is a new IW feature showcasing the tremendous organizing work of Wobblies throughout the world. Send your updates to iw-reports@ iww.org.
Canvassers from Sisters Camelot are still on strike. They are mostly concentrating on their food-sharing collective, called the North Country Food Alliance, while maintaining a scab watch. The Chicago Lake Liquors campaign ended in July 2013, with the fired workers taking a monetary settlement, a significant portion of which was given to the Twin Cities General Membership Branch (GMB). There are a couple of non-public campaigns getting off the ground currently. Recently these fellow workers had a branch summit, which revolved around reflections about 2013 campaigns. There are ongoing dual-card efforts in the education, warehousing, and communications industries. Twin Cities IWW members are trying to assist Wobs in Duluth in getting a branch started. Several members are involved in the planning of a 1934 Teamsters strike commemoration event that will take place this summer.
The local Food and Retail Workers United organizing committee is still very busy, meeting multiple times a month, some in the mornings for night workers and evenings for morning workers. The group has more than 30 active members, as the IWW is active in multiple shops. The GMB’s Industrial Union (IU) 650 workers are still active in multiple shops as well. Two new campaigns have been ongoing: in domestic work and another for $5 minimum wage increases.
Dual-card and solidarity work are being carried out for an expected Portland public school teachers’ strike, as well as a bus workers’ strike. Members are also quite active in the “Defend Wyatt, Defeat Right to Work” campaign. Wyatt McMinn is a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, who was arrested in a protest at a right-to-work political meeting in Vancouver, Wash. More information can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/ defendwyattdefeatrighttowork.
Mobile Rail Workers Union
One more IWW victory, folks! On Feb. 10, Mobile Rail Solutions—a small railroad servicing company based in Illinois— decided to settle out of court for $159,791. As part of the settlement Mobile Rail admitted that the IWW members were unfair labor practice strikers and not economic strikers. The workers went public with the IWW on July 8, 2013.
Wobblies from Los Angeles, Portland and Salt Lake City held a roundtable public meeting on Feb. 10 for workers in the food and retail industries. Over 20 people attended and great discussion was held.
The Kentucky IWW will file its request for a branch charter soon. At press time, fellow workers in Kentucky said that after about a year of gathering at-large members and signing up new ones, the group will vote on the bylaws and submit paper work to IWW General Headquarters (GHQ) for acceptance at its February meeting. The Kentucky Wobblies have been actively working to become a voice in the community and has been working with Kentucky Jobs with Justice and meeting at the Anne and Carl Braden Center. These fellow workers say they look forward to finally creating an active branch in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky: “We hope to teach the state about that common part. OBU,” they said.
In the South Florida GMB, members are agitating, mapping, and taking initial steps at their jobs in banking, healthcare, retail and printing. The branch is holding regular meetings to discuss their experiences in organizing and educate ourselves about ideas and action. Every month the branch holds barbeques in the park with soccer matches. IWW posters, cards, flyers and pamphlets are distributed in neighborhoods and working-class districts of South Florida in order to get the word out about our efforts and make contacts with workers ready to work around issues at their jobs, their buildings and neighborhoods.
International (Working) Women’s Day
A statement by the IWW Gender Equity Committee about International Women's Day
The Gender Equity Committee (GEC) is both honored and excited to reflect on the impact working women have had on the labor movement and working-class struggle, contributing to the creation of International Women’s Day (IWD).
IWD, for more than a century, has been and continues to be a day of workingclass women’s resistance and organizing, bridging the women’s movement and the working-class labor movement.
IWD dates back to the garment workers’ picket in New York City on March 8, 1857, when women workers demanded a 10-hour workday, better working conditions, and equal rights for women. Fiftyone years later, on March 8, 1908, a group of New York needle trades women workers went on strike in honor of their sisters from the garment workers’ strike of 1857, in which they demanded an end to sweatshop and child labor, and the right to vote.
In 1910, at a meeting of The Second International, German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed that March 8 be celebrated as International Women’s Day to commemorate both previously mentioned strikes and lay a fertile ground for working women’s resistance and organizing across the globe.
Two years later, in 1912, Wobblies went on strike at a textile mill in Lawrence, Mass., commonly referred to as the “Bread and Roses” strike. The strike was led by a contingent of mostly women and immigrants in response to the bosses cutting their wages following the passage of a new state law reducing the maximum hours in a work week. While this strike did not occur on March 8, it did occur in the spring and its message has since sparked many other direct actions in which working-class people have demanded the need for both the necessities in life as well as some of “the good things of life.” “Bread and Roses” has continued to be a common theme for the working class on IWD.
On IWD in 1917, a group of striking women textile workers in Petrograd, Russia sparked the Russian Revolution and urged their husbands and brothers to join them. They mobilized 90,000 workers to demand bread and an end to war and Tsarist repression.
Since the early 1900s, workers have, first and foremost, used IWD as a day to resist and organize together, and second to celebrate the hard-fought struggles of working people all across the world. Many countries—including Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, and Russia—celebrate March 8 as an official holiday.
The GEC believes this kind of struggle is important, and the true working-class roots of IWD must not be forgotten. We must not allow its history to be diluted by a bourgeois agenda, much the way Labor Day has replaced May Day as the widely celebrated working-class holiday in the United States. It is crucial that we continue forward, in similar spirit of our sisters who went on strike in 1857 and 1908, fighting to abolish patriarchy and sexism alongside capitalism, as both systems of oppression and exploitation are deeply intertwined.
Therefore, the GEC supports the struggle for gender equity in our union, workplaces, and the world at large. The five voting members of the GEC—elected at the IWW General Convention each year— communicate with each other as well as other members through the GEC listserv, offering their experiences, resources, and solidarity. Any member is welcome to join. If you are interested please visit http:// lists.iww.org/listinfo/genderequity.
Because we recognize that our own union is sometimes the source of genderbased violence and inequity, we are here to seek out and/or offer resources for peer mediation, conflict resolution, anti-sexism training, literature, consent training and direct actions. Our aim is to foster an atmosphere of inclusiveness in the labor movement and the IWW in particular.
The GEC is also responsible for administering the IWW Sato Fund in memory of Charlene “Charlie” Sato. The Sato Fund was started to aid IWW members who are women, genderqueer or trans* to attend important meetings, trainings, classes and workshops, therefore elevating the participation, ability, and presence of noncissexual (“cis”) male membership. If you qualify and this resource would be of help to you, please contact us at [email protected] to get started on the application process.
A reader’s response To “Nonviolent direct action and the early IWW”
A response to an article that appeared in the December 2013 IW about the IWW and 'nonviolent direct action'.
If Stephen Thornton’s article on nonviolence in the early IWW (“Nonviolent Direct Action And The Early IWW,” December 2013 Industrial Worker, page 11) was meant as an argument in favor of nonviolence being or becoming a “strategy” (his term) of the IWW, it deserves a response. I am bound to say “if” because it is not clear what the aim of the piece is, whether he means nonviolence as an overall strategy, to apply it to the IWW as an organization or to the class as a whole, or to identify a trend. Unfortunately, the problem here could become more than ambiguity.
First, we should rule out the possible interpretation that nonviolence is or has been an overall union principle. If this were true without restriction, it would mean all other matters, including considerations of class justice and the elimination of the class system, would be subordinate to the principle of nonviolence, which is anathema to everything the IWW has stood for in any of its manifestations.
Not only is the blanket rejection of non-violence true to our historical principles, it is also the right thing to do. While conceding that it is our union’s job to be, to some degree, a leader in working-class thought and conscience, it is also our responsibility to accept direction from the class. There is no class struggle that has not had violence as a factor, even if just as a backdrop alternative. One of the clearest examples is the story of the civil rights movement as exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not only was King’s effectiveness enhanced by the specter of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, not only was King’s nonviolent doctrine eroded by his latter-year involvement with opposition to the imperialist war and the plight of workers in Memphis and elsewhere, but we have also learned that King was shadowed by a force of defenders who did not avoid violence, according to Lance Hill’s “The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement.”
But developing competing lists of examples doesn’t prove anything, except perhaps who is the best empiricist. The point is that we should not involve ourselves in ruling out tactical options, or suggesting that they are passé without reference to their impact on and response to the complicated and unique conditions at hand and our overall strategy of workers’ control. An example of such circumstances out of our Colorado history might help.
In the early 1900s, Colorado was a hotbed of class struggle, especially in the mining industry, largely because coal and metals were becoming a huge part of developing imperialism, new technology, and new forms of manipulating workers in mass-oriented industrialization. Big Bill Haywood, the Western Federation of Miners and the IWW all had their roots in this development. In 1914, the resulting conflict made headlines when women and children were slaughtered in the Ludlow Massacre, which triggered federal military intervention and an imposed peace with some concessions to mineworkers. We are currently in the midst of a spate of 100-year commemorations of these events statewide.
In 1927, after the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) had retreated from the state in the wake of Ludlow and other failed attempts to unionize the coal and hard rock mines, another statewide strike broke out. This one emanated from northern Colorado, just 15 miles or so north of downtown Denver, and resulted in the Columbine Mine strike and massacre where state militia machine gunned dozens and murdered at least six picketing miners. This strike was waged under the banner of the IWW and is the centerpiece of a book which was published in 2005 by the IWW and which I helped edit along with the late Fellow Worker Richard Myers.
What the official histories of both Ludlow and Columbine (actually all part of a protracted miners’ struggle all up and down the Colorado Front Range) reveal is that violence played a pivotal role in their eventual success. At Ludlow in the south and, 13 years later, at Columbine in the north, it was organized workers’ militias that were key in forcing concessions from the bosses and the state. Organized workers’ militias, along with the reputation of the IWW as a militant and perhaps violent union, are what led to the unionization of the coal fields because that’s where the struggles eventually led: to armed standoffs between state militias and miners’ militias (complete with military training camps) which forced not only concessions but union representation as well. The coal capitalists chose to soften the blow by recognizing the UMW instead of the IWW.
The use or threat of violence was neither pre-ordained nor pre-conceived on our side. It grew organically out of the selfdefense and offensive—the line between the two is often obscure—requirements of the situations, implemented by those directly under attack and not for the purpose of inflicting harm per se. There is a place for calculating the appropriate use of force in hindsight; all our decisions should be informed by not just our immediate experience but also by that of our predecessors. In other words, there is a role for intellectuals and historians here. This kind of assessment is not limited to reviewers, however, our culture carries these kinds of lessons within it, available to those directly involved, in real time, and sometimes much more clearly than the analyses of intellectuals. Sometimes the further we are away from the immediate situation the more likely we are to import distorting biases into the process. In this case, and I suspect many others, the IWW’s opposition to the use of this violence would have placed it outside the struggle as it existed, and would have violated our real dedication to the most effective use of class leverage to achieve power.
In general it isn’t the use of violence or the myth of a violent IWW that is at the heart of the matter any more than the employment of nonviolent tactics would be. Both are part of an arsenal of tactics that are available in life-and-death struggle and must be determined as conditions unfold. In this case it was a series of accidents and acts of courage—including the violent seizure of control of nearby towns—that on balance garnered sympathy and a popular feeling that, at least, the miners were justified in responding in kind. It also served, and if our Colorado Bread and Roses Workers’ Cultural Center has anything to say about it, still serves as an inspiration to workers hungry to take control of their lives, even by force if necessary, and a reminder that workers do not have to accept a ruling class monopoly on the use of force. Details on these events are documented in our “Slaughter in Serene: the Columbine Coal Strike Reader,” available from the IWW or online at http://www.workersbreadandroses. org, and Scott Martelle’s “Blood Passion: the Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.”
As always it’s important to view the Colorado events in the context of the broader political and historical landscape. The struggle of the early 1900s, from which the IWW sprouted, was a scene in transition between the naked authoritarianism of feudal times and modern bourgeois rule. This “new deal” rule was marked by the mythology of capitalism as a universal solution to all woes, and policies that tended to subdue the class by a combination of repression and partial appeasement and (thanks to the intriguing collaborative efforts of the “progressive” reform movement in the United States and the state capitalist communists in the Comintern) the establishment of the state as the overarching mediator of capitalist domination. It follows that a movement designed more toward capturing the hearts and minds of those deceived by this form of rule should become more prevalent, and with it, nonviolence. But again, this is a tactical decision, not a universal principle, based on the fact that times change, time changes, and with them, tactics.
We should, finally, applaud Thornton’s emphasis on the role of women’s involvement in struggle, but, again, we should add some balance to his references. We dedicated a section of our book to the toooften unrecognized leadership of women militants in mineworkers’ struggles. So we noted the leadership of not only icons like Mother Jones, who led marches of mineworkers and their supporters on the Colorado state capitol at the time, but also on much less acknowledged militants like Colorado’s “Flaming Milka” Sablich and Santa Benash, as well as others in Kansas, Illinois and beyond.
A tale of two trainings
A dual card member briefly compares the training programs of the UFCW and IWW.
The IWW’s Organizer Training 101 (OT101) is fundamentally different from any of the union trainings I’ve ever participated in with my business union.
In 2010, I went to the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) Prairies Youth Activist Retreat. It was five days long and held in a smaller vacation town in Manitoba. We spent the first two days learning the UFCW version of labor history and why we needed to vote for the New Democratic Party (NDP). We had a provincial NDP functionary (the Minister of Justice) come and speak to us about “our” issues. Incidentally, he sidestepped my question about why the NDP cancelled the university tuition freeze. We were told that, because of elections in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, we might be expected to act as volunteers for the NDP’s electoral campaigns and that the skills we learned were going to be put into that project.
The next day was the structure of the Canadian labor movement and a half-day explanation of why Walmart is terrible (seriously, like half a day dedicated to how terrible Walmart is). The next day focused on contract negotiation. We split into two teams and tried to play the roles of employees and employers. It was the only role-play in the week, and it forced half of the workers to identify as bosses. Of course, no one wanted to play the role of the boss because we were all snarky youth attending a union activist training and thus we didn’t identify with the bosses. We didn’t take this activity, seriously and the “bosses’” only offer was “de-certify the union and we will give you a $10 raise or don’t decertify and we will negotiate a contract with the CLAC [Christian Labour Association of Canada] to lower your wages.” It was a pointless exercise.
The final day was the “organizer training” day. After the whole “why we organize” spiel, we were told that our job as organizers was to go find information in order to pass it on to the next level up within the union. Then, as the height of ridiculousness, our next task was to go to local grocery store to fan out and get information on the people working there! Can you imagine a group of 20 youth from out of town or even out of province going to a store all at once? We were instructed to pay really close attention to the workers there as well as to ask them questions about what they did and how they liked it. Of course the bosses found out right away and they called the police. Cops escorted these young organizers off the property. It was a mess and I doubt that anything productive ever came of the activity.
These tactics are fundamentally different from how the IWW operates and how the IWW trains its rank-and-file organizers. The IWW, through role-playing in its trainings, helps to empower workers themselves. Our goal isn’t to pass off information to another layer of the union who does the work for us. The IWW doesn’t see signing cards or being the official certified bargaining unit in a workplace as the ultimate goals of an organizing drive. Our definition of a union is fundamentally different. One learns in the OT101 that a union is “two or more workers coming together to change something in their workplace or industry” and not a statemandated collective bargaining unit. We role-play talking to our co-workers, and since the people we are going through OT101 are our co-workers, it’s much more empowering and uplifting.
After a week at UFCW youth activist retreat, all I felt that I got from it was a week of drinking and a paid vacation (which was fine, because as a minimum wage retail worker, I didn’t actually get paid vacations).
After a two-day IWW OT101, I feel empowered to go out and organize.
Transcona Slim is a dual-card member of the IWW and UFCW, currently working in the retail and education industries.
The challenges of administering misery in the two New York Cities
An article looking at New York City as a new 'progressive' mayor takes power.
The background for our tale is the story of a more laborious problem: class. This appears as a specter haunting the Dickensian narrative emphasizing inequalities within the city which Mayor Bill de Blasio used during his campaign. But it also appears in the impending renegotiation of municipal labor contracts and the broadening social recognition that “stop and frisk” is criminal, as is the entire regime of mass incarceration.
All of the city’s unions are currently working under expired contracts. More gravely, the city’s housing projects (in poor districts) and the prisons are full of people who are treated as a surplus population, ghetto residents whose “contracts” with the city desperately need to be renegotiated. The strategy of de facto eviction through police terror and starvation has failed.
For the last 25 years, New York City has been two cities: a city of dreams for financiers and real estate operators and a lawless police state for the working class. Now the workers and the poor demand a new city. One where they will not be starved, imprisoned, and gunned down, one where they will have dignity on the streets and on the job.
The Tale of Two Cities that de Blasio used to channel the people of New York City into the voting booths is for them the tale of the Restoration City of the last 25 years in contrast with the new city that they demand in order to live with dignity— to live at all in many cases. These people expect changes after the 25-year neoliberal Dark Age in the city’s politics that began in 1989. Will de Blasio deliver that change or be an obstacle to it?
Indices of the character of the de Blasio administration are available for all who would look: the appointment of Bill Bratton as police commissioner and of Carmen Fariña as Schools Chancellor give a disturbing premonition of the way the city’s human capital will be managed in the coming years.
Bratton’s distinguished record as a racist and apologist for police murder is not easily forgotten, nor is his pet theory of broken windows policing and his role as an architect of the “stop and frisk” policies that terrorize the ghettoes. And despite the near-total amnesia reflected in the press coverage of her appointment and the United Federation of Teachers’ pragmatic silence, there is a record of Carmen Fariña’s activities preserved in the memories of all rank-and-file teachers. She was an all-too-compliant appointee of the Bloomberg and Klein apparatus. She is famous for inventing an intense terrorist managerial style (the “gotcha” mentality), lording her power over her subordinates like a high school bully surrounding herself with a pack of sycophants and lashing out against the losers. And she is infamous for her embezzlement of funds and other criminalities. The list goes on…
What, then, can we expect? Neoliberalism 2.0: neoliberalism without neoliberals. Although the de Blasio administration has claimed to offer changes from the way things were done under the archneoliberal prince Michael Bloomberg, they only offer us nominal ameliorations of inequalities, the better to preserve inequality.
Luckily, “expectation” does not equal “fate.” We can act to change the course of things. We are in a particularly strong position to do so at the current time, which brings us back to the working class. The city has a number of issues on the class front: the fast-food strikes, the renegotiation of union contracts, the legal recognition of the need to end the terror inflicted on residents of public housing and other socially neglected zip codes. What is the working class prepared to do? General strike? Riot? Demand the release of our brothers and sisters from the prisons? Demand the end of the starvation of our communities?
A mass strike is the only rational response. Insofar as the working class— from the homeless freezing beneath a bed of newspapers to the wage slave chasing the clock through a fairly wellpadded nightmare—shows itself as being prepared for a mass strike, we can see the birth of a hospitable world. One where we don’t let each other starve, where our friends and neighbors will be emancipated from racist prisons, where our parents and friends will no longer work full time and still have to beg the bosses’ state for food stamps, where our “bosses” will no longer have the power to enslave us with clocks and statistical tables.
Rosa Luxemburg: a true revolutionary
An article by Staughton Lynd about the socialist revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg.
Rosa Luxemburg is the most significant woman in the history of revolutionary activity. For those of us seeking to create a synthesis of Marxism and anarchism, she is also the most significant individual— man or woman—in that tradition.
It is appropriate to remember her on International Women’s Day. If I am not mistaken, it was Luxemburg’s friend and colleague Clara Zetkin who first proposed that there be such a day.
And apart from who said what when, Luxemburg was surely the guardian spirit of the female textile workers who went out onto the streets of St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) on International Women’s Day, 1917, and began the Russian Revolution.
It seems that there were male radicals on the scene who told the women not to demonstrate because it would be too dangerous.
The women disregarded this advice. Emptying the textile factories, they marched to locations outside the metalworking plants where most of the workers were men and called out, “Come on, you guys! What are you doing in there? Join us!”
The authorities sent out Cossacks, policemen on horseback, to ride the women down. In his “History of the Russian Revolution,” Leon Trotsky describes what happened. The women, young and old, without weapons of any kind, approached the riders on their excited horses. Extending their arms imploringly, the women called out: “Don’t ride us down! Our husbands, brothers, sons, who are at the front, are just like you! We all want peace, bread, and land!”
The Cossacks were ordered three times to ride through the women. Three times they refused. Six months later, countless soldiers at the front lines would “vote with their feet” and come back to the cities to help overthrow the Czar.
Luxemburg was born in Poland. She moved to Germany and became the fiery spokesperson for socialists opposed to the “reformism” of German socialist leaders. Like these leaders, Luxemburg attended socialist conferences at which delegates promised each other that, if the nations of Europe were to declare war, there would be an international general strike. Long before World War I, she foresaw the timid, bureaucratic mindset that would cause German Social Democratic representatives in the national legislature, like almost all their counterparts in the national legislatures of other European countries, to vote for taxes in support of that country’s war effort.
Vladimir Lenin, too, condemned the treason of Social Democracy and took up agitation to turn the war, in every belligerent nation, into a civil war to overthrow capitalism. Those who shared this position came to be called Communists.
But Luxemburg and Lenin had fundamental differences. Toward the end of the 1890s Lenin had been arrested and sent to Siberia. Joined by his wife, Krupskaya, the two spent their mornings translating books on trade unionism by Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
The Webbs wrote about England, and, since England was the most industrially developed economy of the time, Lenin saw in what the Webbs described the future of his own country, Russia. The Webbs described the evolution of trade unionism in England from decentralized efforts characterized by “primitive democracy” and hatred of what William Blake called the “Satanic mills” into nationwide bureaucracies happy to make their peace with capitalism if their members might be provided with improved wages and benefits. Lenin dreaded that Russian workers, as well, would follow the English example and create self-interested, apolitical trade unions. He concluded that only if a “vanguard” party of radical intellectuals persistently spread left-wing political ideas among the workers would a Russian revolution be possible. And he said so, upon his return from Siberia, in a booklet entitled “What Is To Be Done?” published in 1902.
Luxemburg disagreed! She perceived Lenin as a man with many good ideas but secretive, manipulative and distrustful of ordinary workers. She said Lenin had the “soul of an overseer.”
The Russian Revolution of 1905 appeared to vindicate Luxemburg. While the “vanguard” of Russian socialists made their way to meetings in foreign countries where Bolsheviks and Mensheviks wrangled with one another, Russian workers in city after city set that vast nation on fire with a spreading, spontaneous general strike. Moreover, it was an insurrectionary uprising with objectives that were political as well as intellectual. She described all this in detail in a book that every Wobbly should read and re-read called “The General Strike.”
Imprisonment & death
The German government threw Luxemburg in prison because of her opposition to the war and to the German war effort. Her prison letters are extraordinary. When released from her cell for brief periods in which she might walk in a small courtyard, she was careful not to crush the structures made by ants and other burrowing insects.
Meantime in Russia, the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership had called for “all power to the soviets” and overthrown the Czar. From the isolation of her prison cell, Luxemburg wrote a series of remarkable critiques of what was going on in Russia. Fundamentally in solidarity with what Russian workers, peasants, and soldiers had brought about, she nonetheless begged them to remember that “Freiheit ist immer Freiheit fuer den andersdenkenden” (“Freedom is always freedom for the person who thinks differently”).
Luxemburg was released from prison at the end of the war in November 1918. In her first public address after she was freed, Luxemburg said that some changes might have to wait until after the revolution, but something Germany should do right away was to abolish capital punishment.
Workers’ and soldiers’ soviets sprang up all over Germany. Misunderstanding what was going on, Luxemburg’s colleague Karl Liebknecht prematurely called for a revolutionary uprising.
Appalled, Luxemburg nevertheless remained in Berlin.
A gaggle of counter-revolutionary thugs came to the place where she was living. “To what prison are you taking me?” she naively inquired. They shot her, and threw her body into a canal.
A true revolutionary
Barely five feet tall, walking with a perpetual limp because of a childhood hip disorder, a Jew, a woman, and, during her political life and at her death, a refugee; Rosa Luxemburg may well be the most significant theorist of the 20th century labor movement.
The working class self-activity that Rosa Luxemburg chronicled, praised, and advocated has recurred since her death in many places: Italy in the early 1920s, Spain and the United States in the 1930s, France in 1968, Poland in the first flush of Polish Solidarity, and elsewhere. It usually happens locally and perhaps especially among women (think of Walentynowicz and Pienkowska at the Gdansk shipyard).
No one can be sure what the future significance of such activity will be. We can try to nurture in quiet times the horizontal, decentralized organizational forms based on solidarity, which, as Luxemburg showed, may explode from within the working class in moments of crisis.
Toward equal employment for women
Jane LaTour on gendered pay disparities in the workforce.
Now that March Madness—and Women’s History Month—are upon us, we pause for a look at the distance women have traveled since the Civil Rights Act, with its Title VII provisions for equal employment, became law in 1964. As I wrote in “Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality,” “[W] omen today enjoy many gains won by the barrier-busting advocates for gender equality. Little girls today grow up thinking they might pilot an airplane; or travel into space like astronauts Mae Jemison or Sally Ride; conquer scientific frontiers; play professional basketball on the court at Madison Square Garden; or argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Report on that Court—or the N.B.A. [National Basketball Association]—for the New York Times.”
We’re a far cry from the days when newspapers ran classified ads in sexsegregated columns and brilliant future jurists like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite academic records of excellence, had difficulty finding employment at law firms. The road to greater gender equality was built by the actions of individual activists— acting collectively. “Equal: Women Reshape American Law” by Fred Strebeigh tells one aspect of this story. After the loss of draft deferments during the Vietnam War, which resulted in plummeting enrollments, law schools began admitting women in large numbers. Once inside, women challenged the culture in the classroom, then the employment process, and finally the law—bringing their arguments to challenge unequal practices before the Supreme Court. In the legal profession, the fact that women were able to reach a critical mass and move beyond that point enabled an activist generation—as well as women who followed in that tradition—to have a significant impact on institutions and policy.
Many excellent histories explore various aspects of the women’s movement and the organizing that led to massive social changes—for men and for women. Ruth Rosen’s “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America” (2000); “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s” by Stephanie Coontz (2011); Nan Robertson’s “Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times” (1992); and Susan Brownmiller’s “In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution” (1999), are at the top of my list for illumination. Yet, despite all of the gains documented in these books and other scholarship, true equality is still elusive. While this is true even in the lives of highly accomplished professional women, the barriers to equality are much more dramatic, with more devastating consequences, in the lives of working-class women.
In certain instances, Hollywood succeeds in giving currency to the lives of women working, not in courtrooms or operating rooms (medicine: another field that has opened up to women since Title VII), but in the lower-paid precincts, of which there are many. “Frozen River” (2008) is one such film. It perfectly captures the life of a woman struggling to survive on the wages of a part-time discount store clerk. The movie puts you inside the skin of this newly-single mother, forced to make harrowing choices in order to survive—to pay her bills and feed her children—alongside that of another woman, a Native American. The film shows the two mothers making common cause to face the bleak economic landscape where shrinking opportunities present enormous challenges.
For more than a decade, beginning in 2002, I had the privilege of writing about public sector workers for the Public Employee Press (PEP), the newspaper published by District Council 37 (DC 37) of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). I wrote many articles based on interviews with women working as civil servants. These stories described the lives of women struggling to pay their bills, support their families, find child care without bankrupting the family budget, getting the kids off to school in the morning, getting to work on time so that they could keep the jobs that afforded them health benefits, and at the same time, absorbing all of the vitriol that’s been spreading across the country—in small towns and large; in rural and metropolitan areas—about our so-called greedy, lazy public sector workers.
How are these women doing? The membership of DC 37 hasn’t had a raise in five-and-a-half years. Meanwhile, rents have risen; the cost of riding New York City’s subways and buses keeps rising, as does the cost of food. And for much of that time, the city under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration was saberrattling about union members needing to contribute more to the cost of their health care coverage. As I interviewed mothers, I liked to ask them what time they had to get up in the morning to get their kids out on time; how far they had to travel to get everybody where they were going—to daycare, school, or work, and what time they got to bed at night—before starting out all over again the next day. In short, I was able to describe the conditions and small economies of everyday living as a public sector worker in New York City.
Over and over, the stories turned out to be familiar: women on shoe-string budgets, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, as the expression goes; living with the stresses and consequences of lowwage jobs in one of the countries most expensive metropolitan areas. These are the everyday heroes who contribute to their communities, raise their children, and live invisible lives in an America which provides excessive financial rewards to the rich, while impugning the people whom Mitt Romney referred to as “the takers.” These stories shed light on the reality of the lives of ordinary working-class women. Back in 2010, when some of these interviews were conducted, U.S. Census Bureau information showed the highest overall poverty rate, 15 percent, since 1993. But the poverty rate for single-mother families was an outrageous 41 percent. A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Women at Greater Risk of Economic Insecurity,” showed that women of color were at greatest risk of economic hardship and that single mothers face double jeopardy—lower earnings because they are female and higher financial stress from the costs of raising children.
One possible solution to what social scientists once termed “the feminization of poverty” is to get women out of the female job ghettos. “Looking back to the 1970s, economic evidence was accumulating underscoring the point that concentrating 85 percent of women into a narrow range of employment categories—the economist Paul Samuelson’s ‘female job ghetto’—led to a dampening effect on their wages. Research by economists Heidi Hartmann, Barbara Bergmann, and Barbara Reskin, among others, made occupational segregation a hot topic. Their work on the significance of sex segregation in the workplace described the many factors—cultural, social, and institutional—that together added up to preserving the female job ghetto. During the 1970s, ‘59 cents to every man’s dollar’ became a common refrain.” Today, we’re up to 77 cents for every man’s dollar.
The ongoing attempt to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act has focused a lot of media attention on the Equal Pay Act, a strategy that would revise remedies for gender discrimination regarding the payment of wages. But another important act got little attention while celebrating its 40th anniversary— the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act (WANTO). In July 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $1.8 million in grants to improve women’s participation in apprenticeships such as advanced manufacturing, transportation, construction and new and emerging green occupations. Four decades—and yet the option of women training for and gaining access to work in blue-collar skilled “nontraditional” fields (less than 25 percent of the total number employed in that field) is still marginal and almost invisible. Despite legislation such as WANTO and litigation, scores of court cases brought by women and women’s rights advocacy groups, progress on this front is minimal.
One of my favorite illustrations of the difference and the economic consequences of entering fields traditionally dominated by men goes like this:
“Remember when you were a teenager and your very first job was as a babysitter? You were 16-years-old and you found that taking care of two kids sure wasn’t easy. To make sure that all was safe and sound, the parents would telephone you and ask if everything was okay.”
“Meanwhile your brother was mowing the lawn or cleaning out the garage and getting paid twice as much as you were. And for what? You had two children on your hands and the worst he could do was run over the azaleas with his lawn mower!”
“If you had an experience like this, take notice. You are beginning to understand what the movement for PAY EQUITY FOR WOMEN is all about!”
This scenario was written by the AFSCME Women’s Department in 1978. Back then, AFSCME was a leader in the movement for equal pay and comparable worth. AFSCME’s lawyer, Winn Newman, took the lead on these cases in the public sector. His work is featured in books like “Rights at Work: Pay Equity Reform and the Politics of Legal Mobilization.” The face of AFSCME’s leadership was male—and the members working in the higher paid blue-collar jobs were male too. But slowly, women began to enter those jobs. As this author wrote in “Sisters in the Brotherhoods,” “At the first New York Women’s Trade Union Conference in January 1974, Margie Albert made an argument about male-female pay differentials and the power of a union to boost women’s paychecks: ‘There is no God-given law that says a secretary is making ‘good money’ when she earns $180 a week while a sanitation worker in New York City is earning entry-level pay at considerably over that. The difference is clear. He’s organized in a powerful union. We are hopelessly divided in most offices. Women need unions!’ But another argument was looming. Why were all the sanitation workers in New York City men?”
You can follow the stories of the public sector female pioneers going into the blue-collar jobs over the decades online in the PEP…the first women who became Sewage Treatment Workers and Highway Repairers—women who poured concrete and paved roads, who fixed guard rails, who did the jobs referred to as “men’s work”—and got paid for it. And what a difference that could make in the life of a working woman: the base pay in 2012 for a Sewage Treatment Worker in New York City was $73,000. In California, the equivalent salary for a Wastewater Plant Operator Trainee ranged from $61,500 to $71,184—with benefits. This is a job that provides union benefits for applicants having completed the 12th grade, or its equivalent—no experience required. These salaries are double those offered for the average clerical worker in New York City.
A recent study released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research charted occupational segregation since the 1970s. It showed that young women are now less likely to work in the same jobs as men. While “[w]omen continue to enter some high-paying male-dominated professions, for example, rising from 4.0 to 32.2 percent of lawyers between 1972 and 2009, overall progress has stalled since 1996. Slowing progress, women continue to dominate professions traditionally done by women, which typically pay less, accounting for over 95 percent of all kindergarten teachers, librarians, dental assistants, and registered nurses in 2009…Most troubling, young women experience more segregation today than they did a decade ago; since 2002, their Index of Dissimilarity has worsened by 6 percent, erasing nearly one-fifth of the improvement since 1968.”
What are some of the barriers that endure and keep the numbers of women working in the blue-collar jobs so low? One of the biggest is harassment: private or public sector, this is a topic that never fails to get coverage. Stories of extreme harassment of women working in the blue-collar “nontraditional” jobs show that misogyny persists. There is a constant stream of documentation about workplace discrimination endured by these women. In “Sisters,” there’s a whole section that looks at city agencies. One focuses on the city’s Board of Education, where the carpenter Ann Jochems, the lone female, was sexually harassed to an extreme degree for 16 years. Over time, the numbers of tradeswomen working in city agencies—craft jobs that pay the prevailing rate with the private sector—have been dismal.
A quick look at data provides a reference point: at the Division of School Facilities (DSF), which is where Jochems worked, “a breakdown from 2003 to 2006 indicates the number by trade, title, and gender. However, surprisingly, the DSF does not track these employees by race. In 2003, there were five tradeswomen: one carpenter, one electrician, one machinist, one plumber, and one steamfitter helper. During fiscal years 2004 and 2005, there were four tradeswomen. Fiscal year 2006 saw an improvement: six tradeswomen— two electricians, one carpenter, one machinist, one plumber, and one steamfitter. Working in isolation, they are often targets for harassment and gender discrimination. One by one and two by two, they take up their high-paid, skilled positions in city agencies, still operating on the frontier of gender equality.”
In February 2011, a group of female bridge painters won their bias suit against New York City. Not only did the city’s Transportation Department discriminate by hiring men only, but it allowed the men to “operate like a ‘boys club’ where lewd sexual images and cartoons were displayed at their lockers.” The message that goes out from cases like this is that women are not welcome. Only very tough, thick-skinned individuals need apply.
Getting to critical mass in this realm would require many changes. As long as women are invisible in these jobs; as long as little girls don’t learn about or see any role models—don’t ever spot a woman on a fire truck or see a female plumber—as long as sexism is allowed to run rampant; as long as agencies and the trade unions do not make the issue a priority—then the problem of non-representation will remain. Women may have “come a long way baby,” but in the blue-collar skilled jobs and on many other fronts, they still have a long way to go. There is much to be done to get to real equal employment opportunity. And, as the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observed: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
Addressing sexual violence in the IWW
An article by Madaline Dreyfus, replying to some of the recent discussion on instances of sexual violence within the IWW. Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence.
Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual violence.
Recently, within our union, the issue of sexual assault and rape of women members has been proposed to be a primary cause of the women leaving the IWW. As a member of the Edmonton General Membership Branch (GMB) for nearly seven years and a survivor of sexual assault, I wanted to respond to what I perceive to be a disturbing discourse surrounding the issue of sexual violence against women.
I am doubtful that the failure to address sexual and gender-based violence is the leading or even one of the leading causes of women leaving the organization or campaigns. While I do think there are factors which contribute to women leaving that are rooted in androcentric and patriarchal practice, I would absolutely not call them violent in the vast majority of cases. Not all patriarchal acts are acts of sexual violence, and by giving disproportionate attention to assault, we render many of the everyday oppressions of female members invisible, and overlook other contributors to gender imbalances in our union.
In conversations with other sister workers, experiences which I know to have directly contributed to women leaving or reducing their involvement include: being asked out by much older men, having men enter their personal space in a way that made them feel vulnerable or unsafe, and derogatory comments made about their interests/capacity/value in the branch. Additionally, although much harder to track, there are a large number of women who leave the union due to messy personal (not political–and I do differentiate) relationships with other members. I attribute much of this messiness to immaturity, unkindness and the inherent complexity of sexual and romantic relationships. I think we need to intervene when conflict begins to affect the safety or continued involvement of members, and in these cases I think we need to act proactively as often as possible.
There is always a need to be mindful of the enormous difference between situations where we can exert personal or organizational influence and easily interrupt patriarchal behavior and cases of sexual assault. While many of us are rightfully suspicious of state structures, until we have the capacity to deal with all aspects of sexual assault appropriately, I believe the only responsible course of action in the case of a report of sexual assault is to encourage and help survivors to contact sexual assault support services in their area, such as helplines, hospitals, police, sexual assault centers or mental health care. We simply do not have the organizational resources or expertise at this point to assist survivors in the ways that are necessary to prevent awful outcomes, such as re-victimization, unwanted publicity, exposing them to further sexual or domestic violence from the same offender, drug and alcohol abuse, or suicide. Being a member of the IWW is important, but not nearly important as being healthy and safe.
Imagine if a woman reported a rape and instead of taking her (with consent) to the hospital or police station for a rape kit, we “dealt” with it ourselves first and physical evidence of the crime was lost? Or she wasn’t able to obtain an abortion and psychological counseling from a qualified health provider in a timely way? Or her attacker was a person within our community, and she was encouraged to find shelter within that community instead of at a shelter? Those are horrifying possibilities. Whenever I hear suggestions of “direct action” around issues of sexual assault, it becomes clear that the consequences of this course of action have not been fully considered— and that is a far greater danger to women in our organization than anything we are doing now. It is very important that we are honest with members about our limited capacity to address sexual assault within our organization in order to ensure that survivors make informed decisions about whether to access other forms of support and do not feel as though they are betraying the union or their community’s principles in doing so.
Sexual assault is not an issue that can be addressed by direct action for one clear reason: there is no “winnable demand,” which is the key characteristic of any direct action we engage in. The only things that we could win back for a person who has been sexually victimized—their self-worth, happiness, sense of safety, or physical health for instance—are not things that we can ever “win” for someone else. We cannot erase what has happened and therefore we can only take revenge, which puts neither the survivor nor us in a position of power. A worker runs the risk of feeling terribly betrayed if these unachievable aims are the goals of our organizing, because no matter what we win, it will never be a victory.
Additionally, it’s important to imagine the possible danger if we “lose.” Any of us who have been active organizers in the IWW know that any campaign loss can be extremely difficult emotionally, even under the very best circumstances. Can anyone take responsibility for pinning a worker’s hope for recovery from sexual assault on an organizing drive? Can we inoculate against what might happen if we lose, and the perpetrator has accomplished a second victimization of the worker? Any conscientious organizer knows that we must never raise the stakes so high.
This is not to say that a worker who has been sexually assaulted, at work or otherwise, should not be involved in an organizing campaign, if they feel able to be. It means only that the sexual assault should never be considered an organizing issue within the campaign. A worker might feel deeply empowered by successful direct action around other issues, meaningful connections with others, and solidarity, all of which may help that worker to survive an assault. We should ensure the worker guides all of their interactions with the perpetrator in order to protect their physical and emotional safety.
If individuals within the IWW know that it is our policy not to turn over cases of sexual assault to legal authorities or outside organizations, we are creating spaces where perpetrators are protected from the consequences of these acts. Furthermore, we are putting at risk the safety of both assault survivors and other members who may become involved in a conflict with the offender. Restorative justice can be an empowering process for survivors and their political communities, providing a way to move forward from destructive sexual violence. It is important that engagement in these processes be guided by individuals who are knowledgeable, experienced, and supported by others with expertise, such as social workers, etc.
I have participated in several IWW meetings where sexual assault and policies surrounding this issue were discussed for extended periods of time. This particular practice is for me, and can be for others, enormously triggering of difficult memories, thoughts and emotions. While survivors are often very invested in the processes we use to address sexual violence within our branch, making these subjects a regular topic of public discussion is a practice that I strongly discourage. Given that nearly a quarter of all women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, we need to be cognisant of the fact that the practice of bringing these topics up in public meetings may in fact be harmful to the very group of individuals meant to be empowered by it.
I don’t think we can underestimate the complex processes that contribute to sexual violence, in our union or in society at large. The statistical truth is that strategies which rely heavily on punitive rather than preventative strategies are unlikely to be as successful as desired, in part because punitive strategies ensure that a sexual assault must occur before we can take action. For instance, statistics indicate that the vast majority of sexual assaults occur when the perpetrator is impaired by drug or alcohol consumption.
A simple practice which has the potential to reduce the risk of sexual violence, although far less glamorous than violent retaliation, is for IWW branches to be highly aware of drug and alcohol use amongst members attending union events and socials. Having a designated pair (preferably of different genders) of sober individuals at each event allows the event organizers to keep a watchful eye on interactions that seem like they could become coercive or violent, and provides capable point-people who could handle the report of an assault reasonably and promptly. Additionally, all branch officers should be provided with a brief guide for what to do if an assault is reported to them, including numbers of hotlines, local hospitals, and sexual assault centers in the area.
Certainly, it seems clear that under no circumstances should men ever be involved in interpreting, determining priorities around, or writing legislation for women’s issues. No matter how wellmeaning, these acts always serve to silence women. While we may value male allies in our fight, the fight is our own. We do not need male “enforcers” to protect women with macho violence, nor do we need male “protectors” to publicize and act as experts on our oppressions. It is important that while men and other non-female IWW members should remain engaged in these discussions, and recognize that as union members they will have a vote on any legislative changes, women should always remain the sole representatives of their own concerns.
The first priority in all cases of sexual assault should be the physical and mental health of the survivor, second the protection of our members, followed finally by the attending to the needs of the organization. Rather than focusing on the actions of the perpetrator, we must always address physical harm to the survivor, much of which may not be immediately apparent; internal injuries, shock, sexually transmitted infections, or pregnancy, for instance.
It is AN INDIVIDUAL SURVIVOR’S RIGHT to decide how she would like others to respond to her assault, including who is made aware of it, what treatment she consents to, and the response of her organization. Policies that encourage any type of “automatic” action, such as the expulsion of members accused of sexual assault, are unhelpful and discourage reporting of sexual violence. Aside from potentially drawing attention to an issue that the survivor may wish to remain confidential, the experience of the assault belongs to the survivor, not the organization— and she should be empowered to make any decisions needed, with an understanding that her organization will provide options and support. Where a worker has had her right to consent violated, we must not repeat the same crime in addressing her assault.
Discussions about the assault should be directed by the survivor, and those confided in with these situations should be made aware of the need for confidentiality. Sexual assault is a form of disempowerment that cannot simply be reversed through collective action. We cannot undo the violence which has been done to survivors, however we can endeavour to provide as safe an environment as possible, as well promote organizational practices that allow for the long and difficult path to recovery.
Invisible work: women’s challenges in the service economy
Lydia Alpural-Sullivan on gendered pay disparities.
In the changed economic landscape of the 21st century global economy, no welldeveloped theory or system for quantifying the value of labor outside the realm of physical goods production exists. The task of quantifying the value of labor as a good itself is complex and abstract. The result of this difficulty is that when determining the value of a worker’s skillset for the purpose of determining compensation, an employer is wont to rely on subjective benchmarks defined by tradition, and in the case of women particularly the sexual division of labor.
The type of work that is available to women (not to be confused with work women choose, as the capitalist class is fond of framing it) certainly has something to do with pay inequality. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2013 shows that the great majority of the lowest paying jobs are in the service sector, particularly food service and retail occupations—industries which are largely occupied by female workers. What’s more, women aren’t only over-represented in the lowest paying jobs; they are the lowest paid amongst that section of workers, too.
Domestic labor that women have performed in the home and community has also traditionally been unpaid work. To imagine that those same skills have come to be simply expected from women by employers, essentially normalizing the idea that those particular forms of female capital should come at no additional cost, is no huge stretch. In his 1983 book, “The Managed Heart,” Arlie Hothschild coined the useful phrase “emotional labor,” defined as that which “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Female workers are particularly susceptible to performing emotional labor, both because of the jobs made available to them, and because they have been mercilessly socialized to bear the burden of being pleasant and amicable. Certain sects of Mormonism have even adopted the mantra for their young women—“Keep Sweet,” as a reminder that passive agreeableness is a duty of their sex.
So, what is the precise connection between women occupying jobs that reflect the sexual division of labor and the pay gap? Cultural traditions arising from a history written by the voice of patriarchy seem to suggest that women’s work is simply more worthless. Certain tasks, having been historically assigned to the realm of women, have become in a Veblenian sense “humiliating” (as opposed to “honorific”) employments—or in other words, jobs which have never been and shall never be lionized, appreciated, or respected proportional to their use and value to a society.
To find millennia-old evidence of a gender gap in worth, one might start in Leviticus 27, verses 3-7, which contains a tariff describing the values of female and male slaves. The average worth of a female slave was approximately 63 percent of that of a male slave. Interestingly, the average wage differential for a female worker between 1950 and 1990 was 62.5 percent that of men. Until nearly the 21st century, it would appear, pay for women has lagged amazingly consistently. It is possible the inherent patriarchy of these belief systems was the vehicle across the centuries for a consistent disparateness in worth.
To see how emotional labor is ignored in the workplace, simply imagine which task sounds more exhausting—a childcare worker looking after 20 children, or a technician repairing a car. Include in your consideration that the technician will receive nearly twice what the caregiver will—and he is almost certainly male, and she, female. Alternately, some male-dominated industries (like information technology) will hire “office moms”—women brought on for their interpersonal skills to help offices run smoothly. These women are not paid for their interpersonal contributions to the business, despite the fact that they carry significant emotional and psychological weight in the workplace.
Obviously, closing the wage gap has profound implications for the working class. What we as workers can do to help address this is to first be aware of the emotional labor we do, and understand the unique challenges that female workers face in service jobs. We must also make efforts to consider our fellow workers in this regard. Perhaps most importantly, we must be willing to unify and speak up when we see this condition being taken advantage of. The favorite tool of the capitalist class is to divide workers along lines—by pay, by race, by gender—to tempt us to think some jobs, some skills, some workers are doing more and are worth more than others. To tolerate a gender pay gap is to assist the employing class to that end. The only answer is to be an advocate for any worker who you feel is not being paid for every bit of the labor they are doing, whether that labor is visible or not.
What kind of workers deserve a union?
An article about the common framing of 'who unions are for'.
The standard of living for U.S. workers has been stagnating or in decline for the last four decades despite enormous leaps in productivity. Labor unions, organizing on the shop floor to shut down production to enforce workers’ demands, are a well-proven and direct method of closing the gap between what workers want and what they get from their bosses. Yet labor unions today count less than 8 percent of private sector workers and less than 40 percent of public sector workers in their membership. Furthermore, public opinion often turns against those workers who risk their jobs and reputations to try to start up unions in their workplaces, calling them “undeserving” and a host of other insults. Is there anything in the history of unionism that explains why we see these self-defeating and contradictory behaviors playing out at a time when workers need to come together more than ever to fight for common goals?
Looking back a century or more to the rise of labor unions as a major force in industrialized countries, we see that some of the biggest unions (the American Federation of Labor in particular in the United States) made no bones about setting their priorities on organizing and protecting highly trained and socially privileged workers (native-born white males in particular) not only from capitalist factory owners, but also against supposed threats “from below” in the form of immigrant workers, female workers, workers of ethnic, religious and racial minorities, and other relatively underprivileged workers. The arguable goal of these unions was to create a well-paid, elite class of “deserving workers” who were able, as a unified group, to put their needs ahead of other workers’ needs, sometimes aligning their interests with the employing class in the process. When it suited them, these unions would break each other’s strikes and generally do whatever it took to obtain, as they said, what they considered to be “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” even if it meant hurting other, supposedly less deserving workers along the way.
That is not what we in the IWW would call a broad spectrum working-class solidarity, but a perverse kind of unionism fueled by reaction, racism, sexism, nativism and other prejudices. Most of all, though, it is a unionism that does not get to the root of the problem facing all workers, whether or not we inhabit traditionally privileged racial, gender and other statuses. The root of the problem is that capitalism—in allowing a 1 to 10 percent of social members to control, own, and unduly influence industry, thereby directly or indirectly ruling over the other 90 to 99 percent—creates at a structural or institutional level a permanent underclass of people who have fewer opportunities and greater hardships no matter what they do.
By contrast, the IWW and our similarly radical forebears have fought—even when it was illegal, for instance, for black and white workers to belong to the same unions—to have a totally unified class of working people: skilled and unskilled, male and female, with no one left out. We did this not only because it is just in itself, but also because it is the only strategic or logical method of liberating workers from the capitalists’ domination of modern society. Either we all stand united and on equal footing in opposition to the controllers of industry on the basis of class alone, or we will be divided and conquered from within our ranks and defeated, as has happened over and over again. (The reaction from certain subsets of the white working class against racial equality and integration in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, was arguably an important part of how the capitalist class was able to regain a strengthened hand after decades of working-class organization and upsurges to bring us the overtly anti-worker, neoliberal regimes of former U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and so on from the 1980s to today).
In 2014, more than 60 years after McCarthyism and the institutionalized purging of radicals from within mainstream labor unions, more than 50 years after the near-collapse of the IWW that followed, and more than 40 years after average U.S. wages reached their high point, labor radicals still struggle to overcome procapitalist union ideologies and reverse the class defeats which have plagued workers for far too long. In current IWW organizing campaigns, whether it is around the Sisters’ Camelot Canvass Union in Minnesota, the Insomnia Workers Union in Massachusetts, or any number of other active shop-floor struggles, we, Wobblies, still hear criticism regularly from people who consider themselves to be progressive or otherwise left-of-center in comments such as, “I support unions, but not for these people. They work part time and don’t have job skills!” Or they will tell us, “If you want better wages, get out of the fast food industry and go back to school!” We also hear these sorts of remarks around other contemporary struggles going on in the broader Fight For 15 movement at McDonald’s and other large, highly profitable franchise chains.
Comments like these betray almost superstitious beliefs not only in an upward social and economic mobility that always had a low ceiling for the majority and that no longer, in large measure, even exists, but also in a labor division and class system that is based on the notion that some workers deserve to be treated and paid poorly by their employers—and indeed that there should be two separate employing and working classes to begin with (rather than, say, a cooperative system of industry in which this dichotomy is transcended). To the IWW, all workers deserve a union, and we believe that until all workers do organize into One Big Union, we can expect to see continued inequalities between “undeserving” workers who are stuck with jobs comprised of 90 percent disempowering tasks and low compensation and “deserving” workers (or so it is rationalized) who get to do the better jobs that carry more prestige and never involve undervalued but necessary “dirty work” like picking up trash, flipping burgers, or changing diapers. But most of all, there will be a capitalist class above both types of workers, keeping most of the fruits of our labor as their own private property and letting us fight amongst ourselves for the leftovers. The IWW exists to end these injustices and form a democratic society in which industry is operated according to need as determined by workers ourselves. Are you with us?
Short takes of revolutionary women
Brief reviews by Steve Thornton of books and movies about revolutionary women.
The granddaughter of one of the IWW’s most gifted organizers is using art to educate a new generation about Matilda Rabinowitz. Robbin Légère Henderson of Berkeley, Calif., is an artist who has combined her personal recollections of her grandmother, Rabinowitz (who was later known as Matilda Robbins), with the Wobbly’s archived documents in the Walter P. Reuther Library at the Wayne State University in Detroit. Beginning in 1912, Rabinowitz led textile strikes in Connecticut and Little Falls, N.Y. She then helped organize the earliest auto workers strike at the Studebaker Company in Detroit. In 1919 Rabinowitz had a child, Vita, whose daughter, Robbin, is now preparing a graphic novel memoir. Her striking illustrations, a total of 70 prints, are accompanied by a text that begins with Rabinowitz’s immigration from the Ukraine through her extraordinary organizing life. Robbin Henderson is currently looking for a publisher. If you would like information on how to contact her, visit her website: http://www.robbinhenderson.com
Nothing can replace the power of music to raise the fighting spirit of the oppressed. “Songs of Freedom” is a new CD and book celebrating James Connolly, the Irish revolutionary and IWW organizer who was also a prolific songwriter. Many of Connolly’s lyrics were not set to music (or the tunes have been lost), so performer Mat Callahan provides us with contemporary tunes that inspire and rock. His live performances with Yvonne Moore should not be missed. They are touring both coasts of the United States and Europe in 2014. The book and the CD are both available from PM Press, or you can visit http://www. matcallahan.com.
Birth control pioneer or racist eugenicist? Margaret Sanger is celebrated as the former and slammed as the latter. The graphic novel “Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story” by Peter Bagge tries to set the record straight. This is an enjoyable illustrated biography of the activist who began her career as a rebel by working with the children of the Lawrence, Mass., textile workers during the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike (the book gives us two pages on Sanger’s involvement). Bagge takes on the controversy about Sanger’s speeches and policies that some, like former presidential candidate Herman Cain, have used to smear her and Planned Parenthood. Doubters can factcheck that W.E.B. Dubois was one of her many supporters, and that Martin Luther King, Jr. was given the “Margaret Sanger” award in 1966. Pick up “Woman Rebel” and decide for yourself. It’s published by Drawn and Quarterly.
“No Gods, No Masters” has been shouted out and painted on many a banner, even before it appeared at early Wobbly demonstrations. Now a new film, “No God, No Master” (2012) explores 1919, the incendiary year in which the U.S. government brought all its power to bear against the Wobblies and those who opposed capital. Forget the bad Internet Movie Database synopsis; this 2012 film directed by Terry Green is a political thriller where the main character’s “journey into the world of homegrown terrorism proves to be a test of both his courage and his faith in the government he had dedicated his life to preserving.” It stars David Straithairn (known for his role in “Matewan”) and features characterizations of Emma Goldman, Carlo Tresca and Luigi Galleani. The film will start its limited theatrical release in March 2014.
“Shoeleather History Of The Wobblies” Teaches New IWW Stories
A short review of A Shoeleather History of the Wobblies: Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Connecticut.
Thornton, Stephen. A Shoeleather History of the Wobblies: Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Connecticut. The Shoeleather History Project, 2013. Paperback, 150 pages, $11.99
Over the last 20 years there has been a small explosion of new books regarding the IWW. This should be welcomed as they are better books for active Wobblies than those works that preceded them. Older histories, riddled with fallacies promoted by Communist-oriented academia and labor bureaucracies, have (fortunately) fallen into the trash heap we call “out-of-print.”
The newer books, such as: “Oil, Wheat and Wobblies,” “Joe Hill: The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Working Class Counterculture,” “Harvest Wobblies,” and “Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia” are all books that can be used to inspire new forms of Wobbly activity.
“Shoeleather History of the Wobblies” is an interesting addition to the collection of new IWW histories. Unlike most of the aforementioned books, itis not an academic work. In this way it is more like Franklin Rosemont’s book on Joe Hill. “Shoeleather” is a collection of essays and vignettes about the IWW and its work in Connecticut. It is divided into sections on free speech fights, organizing/actions, repression, and individuals. The entries are usually very short, but interesting and well-written.
I have only two small criticisms of the book. The section on repression Graphic: shoeleatherhistoryproject.com somewhat falls into theold misconception that “the IWW in the U.S. collapsed because of government repression.” This has been disproven and the sooner we move on to analyzing what actually did happen, the healthier we will be as a union. Second, there were major efforts to organize Metal and Machine Workers Industrial Union (IU) 440 in the 1930s in Bridgeport. These efforts were built on successes in Cleveland. I’m not faulting Fellow Worker Thornton for the oversight; it’s pretty obscure and not mentioned in major histories. It would be interesting if any information could be found on those efforts.
The author, Steve Thornton, is a member of the IWW. I thank him for his efforts in this book.
Learning valuable lessons about business unions
An exchange between Kdog and Brandon Oliver on the nature of the reformist unions.
My Fellow Worker (FW) Brandon Oliver’s excellent review of the play “Waiting For Lefty” (“Valuable Lessons Learned From 1935 Play ‘Waiting For Lefty,’” December 2013 IW, page 3) ended in a critical examination of the state of the official labor movement—what Wobblies often call the “business unions.” I liked that the FW hit the business unions hard (we need more of that in the IW in my opinion). I also generally agree that:
“The business unions aren’t just good unions gone bad; they are literally zombies— shells that appear to still be alive but with all of their internal dynamic and thought process gone, destroyed by repeated doses of the poison known as the National Labor Relations Act. Finally, they have become incapable of acting out of the bounds that their poisoners have set. We can’t ‘recapture’ or replace them (that is, not at administering the contract). Our task has to be to show a different path, as a permanent fighting workers’ organization.”
It would be a mistake however to conclude that there won’t be turmoil and struggle from the ranks of the business unions. Even in their decrepit state there has been a consistent pattern of rebellion emerging from under and against the bureaucracy. This can be seen in the raging class war of the Detroit newspapers strike, the [United Food and Commercial Workers] P-9 strike in Austin, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) strike at Northwest Airlines, the west coast longshore workers and the Chicago Teachers Union.
I see this pattern continuing, not ended. Militant workers will continue to TRY and use the business unions’ structures for class self-defense, and this will inevitably cause clashes with the bureaucracy and bosses. I believe we need to be prepared for these insurgencies and meet them (and/or participate in them) as Wobblies.
Sophisticated bureaucracies will not seek just to repress this militancy, but channel it into controlled protest aimed at adding more chips to the labor bosses hand at the capitalists’ table.
For these reasons, downplaying or dismissing the possibility of militancy emerging from workers in the business unions or from the business unions themselves will disorient people (including our membership and base) if and when that happens. This could in turn build up illusions in the bureaucrats (“This union is different, it IS fighting”). I think this is some of the reason the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has a different image with many radical young folks.
Twin Cities Wob
Response to Kdog
I’m glad to see the response to the review of “Waiting for Lefty.” I think there were some weaknesses in how I expressed some thoughts, and K did a good job responding to those.
First of all, maybe my “zombie unionism” analogy was kind of stretched. I’m trying to address what I see as a huge blind spot in radical thought since the 1930s, which is that we ought to look at unions the same way we ought to look at anything else in society. That is, we have to look at them as historical objects that change both due to internal and external pressures. So much of the way that unions are discussed on the left is the same as they were discussed in 1934—but even by 1944 unions in the United States had been fundamentally changed into semigovernmental organizations. So much of the discourse is still stuck in 1934 and essentially boils down to two ideas: the first is that the unions are basically good organizations of the working class but with a bad, bureaucratic leadership which we have to struggle against and try to replace; the second is that the bureaucratic unions are bad unions, because they are not revolutionary, and that the working class would be better off going with revolutionary unions that know how to fight. However unions are just like anything else that humans make: they change. Sports, political parties, “art”—all of it has gone through major structural changes in the past 80 years, and so have the organizations that we call unions.
I think the question that we have to ask, in order to understand unions today, is “Who do they depend on for their existence?” Originally unions, even the worst ones, depended for their continued existence on workers who would be willing to pay dues, attend meetings and walk off the job in defense of their positions and their union power. Maybe they had undemocratic leaders, maybe they supported colonialism, maybe they excluded women, immigrants, or Blacks. These problems were certainly also present in the working class, they weren’t invented by the bosses. This led to the classic position that trade unions represented the average of the working class, and couldn’t be expected to be too radical. From a Wobbly perspective this was problematic even in the 1930s, but made sense.
But there is a global tendency that we can see in hindsight of tying unions to the state and employing class, not just ideologically but for their everyday existence. This began in Russia in the 1920s, it was fairly well-perfected in the United States between 1935 and 1947, and employed in other countries in different ways (the one I’m most familiar with would be Spain in the 1977 “Pactos de Moncloa” that paved the way for the return of capitalist democracy). The general common feature is to remove the union from depending on the workers for its everyday existence, making it dependent instead on the employers and the state for planning its budget and cutting paychecks to its staff. A contemporary example would be the money flowing from Democratic Party outfits through Madison Avenue firms into SEIU’s Fight for 15 campaign, and the total lack of dependence on fast-food workers.
So what does this mean for our practice? The key thing to realize is that the two classic approaches—replace the reformist leadership with a revolutionary leadership, or replace the reformist union with a revolutionary union—are both inadequate now. What we need is an organization which can build independently, and outside of the union structure, for a working-class fightback. This organization should organize workers where there is no union, and it should also be a visible tendency within already unionized shops that stands for a real fightback, not just changes of leadership, and which organizes and pushes for militant action on the widest class basis possible, not just symbolic pseudomilitancy.
The IWW is our best bet for this kind of organization, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
Looking forward to continuing the debate,
Contracts are not a tool, they’re a trap
In the December 2013 Industrial Worker an article defending contracts for the IWW appeared (“The Contract As A Tactic,” page 4). The author pointed out the union’s historic hostility to contracts (the General Executive Board [GEB] even expelled a group of workers who signed a contract in the union’s early history), but he missed the reasons for the opposition. The article is useful though because it highlights one of the main issues for the IWW today: what our role is as revolutionaries trying to work around the breadth of working-class life.
I came of age politically in the Portland IWW, the branch that held and still holds the majority of contract campaigns in the whole union. Since then, I have participated in contract shops, a strike, and a few negotiations as a business union member in a handful of unions and with the IWW. For a time I was one of the organizers in the Social Service Industrial Union Branch (IUB), the largest in Portland with 150 people, of which the three contract shops were a tiny section. While historically the IWW had opposed contracts, it was our recent history with them that helped develop our own critique.
When I became a member of the Social Service IUB 650, there were only two members in good standing from the three shops a short time after winning the initial fights. We had contracts, but the workers in two of the shops were actively hostile to the union. They openly told us they wanted nothing to do with us, and that they thought the union was wrong for their work. Our main contact who worked at one of two contact shops under the same company, a capable organizer named Sarah Bishop, ended up tragically dying in an accident while hiking. This left us without any members in those shops for a long time. The third shop went the same direction shortly thereafter. Conditions were bad in the shops, having the IWW only on paper.
Other cities do not do much better. The Bay Area General Membership Branch (GMB) has had contract shops for decades, and while they maintain members in good standing and have done excellent direct action and organizing, the workers have never had any real interaction with the union. The workers historically have not attended the GMB meetings, contributed to the social and political life of the union, run for positions within, etc. This is the real history of contracts within the IWW.
How many people are familiar with the IWW Dare Family Services shop workers in Boston or the tiny clerical workers unit within an already unionized co-op in Seattle? While we’ve serviced contracts in those shops, politically they represent satellites of the IWW without any real interaction or development with the union. Our relationship has been largely to service them, acting as virtual staff and more often than not slipping away from direct action.
Today Portland’s shops do have active members and some admirable actions under their belt. Part of this shift came when we pursued a different strategy; ignored the contracts and focused on developing organizers and direct actions. With complete turnover of the shops we were lucky enough to encounter one or two individuals who wanted to organize and make changes at work. We started over from scratch and organized those shops in exactly the same way you organize without a contract. Through a series of direct actions around daily grievances, we were able to rebuild and bring new organizers into the fold. For some time the organizers in those shops were making arguments against their own contracts and looking for ways around them or even to get rid of them. In the years since I’ve left that may have changed. The bigger picture is that organizing is similar in many different contexts, and the real issue is how we advance the IWW’s revolutionary ideas and organizing on the ground.
Part of the problem is that people feel that our commitments will make the outcome of contracts different. Democracy and direct action are seen as silver bullets. In our limited experiences with contracts and their shops, we saw the opposite. The reality is that unions do not have trouble getting militant contracts because they aren’t militant (which some unions have tried obviously), but because contracts push us away from taking direct action. The real issue with contracts is that it is a framework to settle workplace disputes that changes our role as organizers and the relationship of the workers to the union.
Contracts emphasize the professional roles of lawyers, negotiators, and often politicians, while mediating direct action in getting demands. This is not random; it’s why the capitalists invented the contractual system. Contracts have long labor peace periods, because the capitalists identified in the 1930s the disruptive role of direct action. Unions experience lulls between contracts, because they are intended to. What employer would sign a contract while knowing that workers would continue to disrupt the business every month thereafter? Likewise, workers, in spite of the best efforts of many unions, continue to see the union largely as a service through the contract. Contracts are not a neutral tool for getting the goods; they channel worker discontent into the dominant means of settling disputes, a system that promotes worker passivity and something that in nearly every case has contributed to this vast alienation from workplace activity seen in unions across this country.
What is the difference between our vision of unionism and the dominant one? A point looming large is that we’re a revolutionary union. We want to do something that is fundamentally illegitimate from the perspective of dominant institutions, including the law. So we should be wary of fitting too neatly into the law. There is not an even playing field between us and the unions that want to improve capitalism today. Nor should we expect that employers, the state, and other unions will play fair if we pose a real challenge. Contracts and the legalistic framework for organizing are one tool they use to discipline workers, and it’s our job to find ways to circumvent all the detours from the kinds of organizing that builds people’s will to fight.
This discussion also raises the question of what we think made the business unions turn out the way they did? Is it just that they have personal flaws or aren’t radicals? Many of them start out just as sincere as us, and tons of union officials, organizers and militants begin as leftists. The problem with the methods of business unions is not who is doing them, or even their militancy and democracy, since militant and democratic versions of business unionism have done only marginally better. The real issue is that they struggle within a framework that improves the system and that they are ideological organizations of reform. If we pursue simply a more militant version of this, we risk becoming a business union with red flags only.
All this goes exactly against our basic tasks as IWW members, which is to increase the activity and commitment of workers to a fundamentally new order. Our goal is to expand the amount of people getting involved in fights around their daily lives because those fights can change them. People can find convictions and hope in collective struggle. Contracts restrain that and trade financial gains for restrained activity.
The author endorses the grievance procedure and points to materially improving the lives of people through contracts. The grievance procedure itself is the embodiment of this pacifying effect of contracts. Grievance procedures take the discontent around issues and put it into a labor court to be settled by officials barring direct action. Employers agree to it because it takes workplace problems off the clock and out of the way of their interests. That line of reasoning is exactly how unions become a tool of the oppression of workers with the rise of contractual unionism. During the 1930s workers engaged in slowdowns and fought to control production (for the safety of their bodies, amongst other things) directly on the shop floor. The United Auto Workers’ first contracts began to integrate production quotas, creating a virtual speed up where the union enforced the boss’s workflow against the workforce. Contracts took shop fights and institutionalized them, effectively illegalized prior struggles that kept workers safe, and turned the union into the cop for the boss.
It’s not hard to see the ideology behind contracts—they serve to channel workers into a legislative sphere that mirrors the dominant society. Contracts, union elections, and labor courts are to the world of workers what the state is to society as a whole. Just like we can’t play by their rules in the government, we need to assert our own power on the shop floor directly.
This highlights a basic dilemma that faces revolutionary unionists today: What is our role? Are we trying to secure material gains (and hope people get on our side along the way) or are we trying to organize people and radicalize workers in struggle? Obviously we need both. But the pursuit of material gains is distorting on two levels. First, people are not necessarily convinced just by winning things. Often the opposite happens. In the IWW we’ve seen easy wins evaporate when people get what they want. Likewise, it is often great defeats that spur people on to a lifetime of commitment. The history of labor is filled with this, and many of our best organizers today in the IWW come from failed campaigns. Winning or losing doesn’t happen in a vacuum; people interpret those outcomes based on how they view the world, and what they want to do with it. That can change in struggle, but it’s never as simple as winning or tipping the balance.
Secondly, we should not expect that a union which threatens all those who are powerful will be better at securing gains. No revolutionary workers’ movement ever was. Reformism has the upper hand here usually. It’s much easier for the powerful to give concessions to a collaborative body than an oppositional revolutionary one. To fetishize the winning aspect is to fundamentally mistake it for the reason why people fight.
People fight because they believe in it. I hear again and again from workers organizing that they want justice and to make things right even if it’s worse for them. This is key. People need to believe in something to give them the strength to endure the inevitable suffering that comes with throwing yourself against the capitalist class. Today it is a pretty uneven battle. If we hedge our bets on winning the day-to-day battles, I don’t think we will get very far.
On the other hand, we have been able to inspire committed lifelong militants through workplace fights. People can be transformed in collective struggle. The IWW has a lot to offer here as we offer not only our tactics, but also our revolutionary ideas that help people work through the broader problems of their lives and gives a unique vision of a better world worth fighting for. This is our basic task today: to radicalize people and spread a revolutionary movement that could pose at times a real challenge to capital. That task goes beyond any immediate short-term gains and helps us understand why it is so hard to win at the shop level today. Ultimately we are in the business of organizing individuals: workers through their lives and actions. To have a sustained revolutionary movement takes a particular situation that allows it to flourish. Often reformism just will function better. As we’ve learned through our own experiments with adopting reformist tactics, they don’t give us extra tools for building that movement; they only remove the best parts of our work.
Industrial Worker (April 2014)
Articles from the April 2014 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
For a PDF copy of issue, check here.
Other articles in this issue, already available on libcom, include:
-Portland Solidarity Network: Things Are Heating Up at Fubonn
-For the long haul by Colin Bossen
-The early IWW, the preamble and the break with political socialism by Klas Batalo
Striking workers at Boston Insomnia Cookies win settlement
An article by Jake Carman about a settlement between IWW strikers and a Boston area retail cookie shop.
On March 3, Insomnia Cookies and four striking workers agreed to a settlement of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charges, officially ending a sixmonth strike. The four workers, Chris Helali, Jonathan Peña, Niko Stapczynski, and Luke Robinson, struck on Aug. 18, 2013, demanding changes at work, including higher pay, benefits, and unionization, and were fired immediately. According to the terms of the settlement, they will all receive back pay totaling close to $4,000, and have their terminations rescinded from their records. Insomnia Cookies will post a notice in their Harvard Square store promising not to fire or otherwise retaliate against workers for union activity, including going on strike.
Additionally, Insomnia revised a confidentiality agreement which improperly restricted workers’ rights to discuss their conditions of employment with one another and third parties (including union organizers and the media).
According to organizers for the IWW, the union representing the strikers, “This settlement is another small victory in a long struggle to bring justice and a union to Insomnia Cookies.”
When the four workers, comprising the entire night shift at the Harvard Square Insomnia Cookies, voted unanimously to close the store after midnight on Aug. 18, 2013, they served cookies to the customers already in line, and then locked the doors. The workers put protest signs in the windows, wrote up a strike agreement and informed their boss they were striking for a raise, health care and other benefits, and a union.
Jonathan Peña, one of the strikers, said he remembers “feeling real conservative that August night, but something told me to stand up for what I believe in. I had nothing to lose but I had much to gain.”
The following morning they returned to set up a picket line, and reached out to the IWW, which sent union organizers to help. Within the first few days, all four were fired, and all four signed union cards. For the next six months, strikers, IWW members, allies, and student organizations at both Harvard and Boston University held pickets, marches, rallies, forums, phone blitzes, and a boycott, while workers continued organizing at both the Cambridge and Boston locations. The union also pursued legal charges through the NLRB. The settlement reached on March 3 came two days before a scheduled NLRB hearing on the charges.
“Since the first utterance of the word ‘strike’ that late August night, it has been an uphill battle for all of us,” said striker Chris Helali. “The Industrial Workers of the World answered the call when no other mainstream union was interested in organizing a small cookie store in Harvard Square. We picketed, we chanted, we sang. I thank my fellow workers, the IWW and all of our supporters for their continued work and solidarity through this campaign. I am proud to be a Wobbly!”
Other outstanding issues remain unresolved between workers and the company. Wages, benefits, break time, scheduling, safety, “independent contractor” status of delivery workers, the November 2013 firing of IWW member and Insomnia baker Tommy Mendez, and police violence against a picket line and resultant charges against IWW member Jason Freedman, top the list of grievances.
The union vows to continue organizing efforts at Insomnia Cookies. Helali said, “I am extremely pleased with the settlement, however, it does not end here. This is only the beginning. The IWW, along with our supporters, will continue to struggle until every Insomnia Cookies worker is treated with respect and given their full due for their labor. There is true power in a union; when workers come together and make their demands with unified voices and actions.”
But for now, union members are celebrating. “Being a part of the IWW means something to me,” said Peña.
“I will never forget the four amigos, Niko, Chris, Luke, and I. We actually made a difference. Being a Wobbly can change your life! I just want to really thank everyone for their solidarity and commitment to crumbling down on this burnt Cookie,” Peña added.
UPDATE: Six days after the settlement, on Sunday, March 9, Insomnia Cookies suspended bicycle delivery driver and IWW organizer Tasia Edmonds. Edmonds was disciplined for speaking out against workplace injustices, which the boss called “insubordination.” According to Edmonds “I was suspended for my union involvement. I have never been disciplined before. I was not served any paper work detailing why I was suspended. I want to get back to work, and I want back pay for the days I missed.” Two dozen IWW members and allies picketed the Boston Insomnia Cookies location, where Edmonds is employed, on Friday, March 14. Organizers planned another rally for Saturday, March 22, after student allies from the abutting Boston University return from spring break. The IWW demands that the company follow through on its promise to cease targeting union organizers.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)
New evidence shows U.S. government spied on Wobblies, activists
An article by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn about military infiltration of an anti-war group around the Port of Olympia.
Ian Minjiras walked out of the anarchist community space Pitch Pipe Infoshop in Tacoma, Wash., and ventured to an anti-war demonstration at a weapons convention where military personnel and law enforcement were in attendance. It was not his first protest, but it was the first protest where many activists met “John Jacob,” who would later be uncovered as a spy for the U.S. Army.
As the demonstration wound to a close, Ian left and walked a distance to catch a bus to the other side of town. Police were later heard saying they sent undercover officers to follow Ian. He was arrested and accused of scrawling graffiti on a wall. While he was being booked, the police confiscated all of the anarchist literature in his backpack that he had just picked up at Pitch Pipe. He spent the night in jail but was eventually let out.
This is a common story at demonstrations—the rally, the arrest, the time in jail. What is not so common is what happened to Ian in the aftermath. In 2007, his name, along with the names of at least three other activists, was entered into a Domestic Terrorism Index. His crimes were that he attended an anti-war rally and had some anarchist literature.
Ian is not alone. He is one of many activists who have been targeted and spied on by the U.S. military in what is perhaps the most expansive surveillance network targeting radicals in the United States since the tumultuous days of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) COunter INTELligence PROgram (COINTELPRO). That secret FBI program was created to destroy the Civil Rights and New Left movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Since it was uncovered, it has only evolved in more secret ways. Currently, a team of lawyers is taking on the U.S. military with the landmark civil liberties case Panagacos v. Towery. This story, however, starts well before the U.S. government labeled Ian as a terrorist. It starts in the streets of the small port city of Olympia, Wash., in 2006.
I remember the feelings of excitement, anxiety and uncertainty that surrounded the Stryker Brigade military shipments that came through the Port of Olympia in May 2006. What started off as just several protesters getting arrested for standing in the road and blocking Stryker military vehicles rapidly grew into hundreds of people, day and night, descending on the port, attempting in vain to stop or slow down the war machine.
Activists came up with the name Port Militarization Resistance (PMR) to describe the network of people who started to take decisive action against these shipments. Dozens were arrested and many more were attacked by the police. PMR was one of many organizations that took part in the port protests—the IWW was another.
Although we were not successful in stopping the shipments, there was no turning back. We had ignited a spark in the anti-war movement, one that suggested that civil resistance and directly confronting military shipments was a more logical approach to ending the wars. To this day, activists reminisce about the time 200 of us marched to the port entrance chanting, “War machine! Tear it down! War Machine! Tear it down!” It was an electric feeling, one the military did not want to spread.
Deployment after deployment, the military changed its tactics to avoid us. Instead of shipping convoys in broad daylight, they used the cover of night for future shipments through the more desolate Port of Tacoma. The Port of Grays Harbor was also used before the military, again, came back through the Port of Olympia in November 2007 with returning shipments. Perhaps military officials thought that there would be no resistance as these were not outbound shipments. They were wrong. Activists saw the ports as revolving doors. We knew that these Stryker vehicles would be repaired and shipped right back out again to continue in the senseless slaughter.
The model that PMR created was contagious. Activists in New York City shut down a military recruitment center in solidarity with one of our actions. There was a short-lived attempt to start a New Yorkbased PMR. Unionists in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in the Port of Oakland made connections with us to organize their own actions while Hawaiian activists were in regular discussion with us as well. Olympia and Tacoma became the epicenter of the antiwar movement. All eyes in the movement were on the Pacific Northwest.
In addition to the resistance in the ports and streets, there was a parallel resistance evolving in the ranks of the military. Lt. Ehren Watada refused to serve in what he saw as an illegal war in Iraq. Suzanne Swift went AWOL (absent without leave) when she was asked to ship back out and remain under the command of a superior who had raped her and put her on suicide missions whenever she refused his advances. PMR activists helped build political movements supporting Watada and Swift and made their stories national news.
Many other soldiers refused to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some did it publicly, asking for our support and going to the media with their stories. Most did it quietly. At least one soldier who went AWOL joined PMR. For the first time, these soldiers realized who their true enemy was. Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) became very active in the Northwest. The group established an anti-war G.I. coffeehouse called Coffee Strong just across the street from the massive military base Fort Lewis (now called Joint Base Lewis- McChord). It was not uncommon for soldiers to show us peace signs and clench their fists in the air as they drove by during military shipments. Off duty, soldiers approached us in tears, telling us they were preparing for their third or fourth tour of duty and thanking us for taking action. One soldier, in what might be called an act of mutiny by his commanding officers, refused his orders to ship more vehicles and marched out of the Port of Olympia to a jubilant crowd of protesters.
The situation was becoming a threat to the war efforts. Militant, raucous demonstrations followed the Army wherever they went. Soldiers and workers at Fort Lewis joined PMR. More and more soldiers refused to fight. Public opinion was not only turning against the wars but was turning into direct action to end the wars. The Army had to do something to put an end to this so their mission could continue unabated. This is where John Jacob entered the scene.
John said he worked as an information technology (IT) specialist at Fort Lewis and was an Army veteran. He was around 40, donned a beret and wore IWW and anarchist buttons. He was welcomed with open arms into the anti-war and anarchist movements. He became very active with PMR and spent much of his time hanging out at the Pitch Pipe Infoshop in Tacoma. I considered him not only a fellow activist but a friend. We gave a workshop together on community organizing at the Tacoma Anarchist Book Fair in 2007.
Suspicious individuals came onto the scene. Many of us were routinely harassed. My house in Olympia, where I lived with several other activists, was under almost constant surveillance by police. They regularly parked their cars across the street, facing our house, and often came onto our property to harass us. I also discovered that the police at the college I attended kept a picture of me on their wall alongside that of another PMR activist for reasons I am still unaware of. In Tacoma, a surveillance camera was secretly installed on a utility pole across the street from Pitch Pipe. In September 2007, and again in the same month in 2009, I was detained and interrogated by Canadian border officials on trips to British Columbia. The first time, they threatened to put me in a Canadian jail without charge, temporarily confiscated my passport and deported me. The second time, I was informed I had an FBI number. A criminal trial called the Olympia 22 that stemmed out of the 2006 port protests was also sabotaged by law enforcement (and later, we learned Towery was in on this) when they hacked into our attorney-client listserv. Former IWW General Secretary-Treasurer (GST) Sam Green and I were both in this case. But there was one thing that tipped us off and made the Olympia IWW branch decide to file a public records request.
In April 2008, the Olympia Police Department stole the IWW newspaper box located downtown. The box was given back only after a lawsuit was threatened. In response, I filed a public records request for any information on the IWW, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and anarchists. The hundreds of documents that were released included one that was an email sent by a John J. Towery II. It did not take long for a small group of activists to research and discover that John Jacob was in all actuality John Towery, Army informant. The jig was up for John but this revelation was only the tip of the iceberg.
Other activists filed more public records requests and over the next few years we would receive hundreds upon hundreds of documents that provided fragments of information detailing a vast surveillance network. Not only was the Army spying on us, but the Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force were as well. We also learned that countless federal agencies, including the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security were spying on us. Even Air Force personnel from as far away as New Jersey and the U.S. Capitol Police in Washington, D.C. were part of the network. Not to mention the seemingly endless list of local and state police departments that were involved.
We discovered that at the core of this network was a fusion center that Towery worked for. Fusion centers are a shadowy post-9/11 development created to monitor “terrorist” activities and “threats to national security.” They blur the lines between local and federal law enforcement agencies and the military. There have been congressional hearings on fusion centers in the past for overstepping their boundaries and trampling civil liberties. Fusion centers have gone so far as targeting Planned Parenthood and peace groups. Occupy Austin was also infiltrated by a fusion center informant. The danger of course is that fusion centers do intelligence gathering on “threats” to U.S. national interests and in doing so see peace groups, Occupy and Al-Qaeda as all part of the same monolith bent on destroying the government. The only thing fusion centers have been successful at is helping prop up a national security state. Civil liberties and constitutional law are simply viewed as annoying inconveniences to fusion centers. There are currently almost 80 such centers in the United States.
Towery’s exact role within the fusion center is still unclear but he did prepare threat assessments on local activists. He was not alone in his work. Clint Colvin was outed as a spy for the Coast Guard. Sandy Kortjohn, whose husband, Mike Kortjohn, worked in the same circles as Towery and spent his time gathering intelligence on SDS and PMR, infiltrated an anti-imperialist group in Olympia and was outed by another activist. Towery’s superiors not only knew what he was doing, they encouraged it and gave him orders. To this day, however, Joint Base Lewis McChord maintains that he was a rogue individual and did not have clearance from his superiors to spy. Documentary evidence that has come in the form of public records requests states otherwise and turns their lies into a thin veil they are finding harder to hide under.
Knowledge of this surveillance went way up the chain of command, all the way up to the Secretary of Defense. It started under the Bush administration and continues, to this day, under Obama’s presidency. Towery’s role as a spy gives us a glimpse into the dynamics of this vast surveillance network. Although I cannot speak about the details yet as I signed onto a protective order, the Army recently gave my attorneys nearly 10,000 pages of discovery documents. Hopefully, the day will come when we can share these and other documents. I’m really curious about the details of this program and am confident that we will get a better picture during trial this June.
The parameters of this surveillance network could fill the pages of a book. This should of course concern everyone in the union. Not just for the obvious reasons that Wobblies were spied on, including former GST Sam Green, or that our union was targeted by an institution which has the main goal of neutralizing and killing threats to U.S. governmental interests. I plan on writing more on this, on who John Towery was, and on what practical things we can take from this experience. There are some new revelations I am still wrapping my head around. I recently learned that while Towery was spying on us, he carried a concealed gun with a bullet in the chamber. I also learned that he tried to convince a friend that anarchists and fascists had much in common, that we should work together. It also seems likely that the U.S. Army was planning an entrapment case on my friends, on fellow anarchists in Tacoma. These are stories for another day.
What we need to do is turn our rage over these revelations into love, into action. To take the words of one Wobbly that was murdered by the state of Utah years ago, “Don’t mourn, organize!” That’s precisely what we need to do in moments like this. Yes, repression is real. But we need to use the story of Army spy John Towery to agitate and organize other workers. We need to educate workers that this government will take excessive measures to ensure that big business accumulates as much profit as possible through perpetual warfare and propping up a national security state.
You can help with this case by giving a donation to our legal defense fund. We need it. Thankfully, we have a brilliant team of lawyers representing us, including Larry Hildes, who joined the IWW during our union’s Redwood Summer campaign with Earth First! Dennis Cunningham is also helping us. He represented radicals the FBI targeted for neutralization, like Black Panther Fred Hampton and Wobbly Judi Bari. It is however a grassroots legal defense on a shoestring budget.
Like Ian Minjiras, I am considered a domestic terrorist by the U.S. government. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of this fact. The bigger question is: Does the government consider the IWW a terrorist organization? This would not be the first time that the government labels those fighting for freedom and liberation as terrorists. And it won’t be the last, unless of course we continue in our struggle to create a society rooted in true freedom, in mutual aid, cooperation, and dignity and abolish the system that shackles the poor of the world. That’s a system the military, law enforcement, both the Republicans and Democrats, the rich, and the national security state that protects all of them are deathly afraid of. We have a world to win! Let’s keep on fighting for it.
Donate to the legal defense fund by visiting http://www.peoplevtowery.org.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)
Fighting back in high-end hotels: an interview with a Miami Wobbly
An interview with an IWW member in Miami about working in hotels.
In November 2013, the Miami IWW interviewed one of its members, Eduardo Segundo, about his organizing and experiences in a high-end hotel in Miami.
Miami IWW (M): Describe your workplace. Who were the clients, workers, and how was the environment when you got there?
Eduardo Segundo (E): It was a very draconian-style workplace, so for example, if the boss didn’t like the stubble under your chin, or didn’t like the dirt on your socks, that was considered a heavy burden. They would call you out on it—it was that kind of workplace. It was so trivial at the time; I didn’t really know what to make of it, but I knew what I was getting into (i.e. high-end hotels have an orthodox view of how particular employees should look).
I mean, right from the very start, I saw all kinds of things: degradation of female workers, atrocious treatment of immigrants, management being unorganized in every aspect (from the kitchen to the pool). During that time, I didn’t really know anyone, and even when I did, which was only a few people, they didn’t have much of a reaction to the abuse (most of the workers had years of experience under these conditions and were already ingrained into the system).
As for patrons, they were mostly CEOs, and their families, celebrities, all those sort of people. In fact, whenever a big-shot venture capitalist showed up, they’d make a big fuss out of it by printing a shot of his face, his biography, the kind of foods they liked, what time they wanted their alarm to be rung, all kinds of interesting things.
M: What about the workers like you? Mostly young? Immigrants? Low wage? Or more of a spread?
E: Yeah, it was mixed—old, young, immigrants, gays, etc. I can’t say it was low wage, because in my opinion, all wage is intolerable, but I guess there’s a so-called thing as humane wages. I think the wages were fair, to some extent, but no one’s ever content with any kind of wage. Look, whatever the wage was at the time, it didn’t matter, we wanted more. I mean, why should the manager be paid more when all he ever did was stop by the kitchen and pick out fries?
M: In that situation, were workers talking about the problems or was it just something you noticed?
E: They were, but the guys who were talking about it were ones who came from a union background; in fact, there were two brothers who spark my memory, both from Chicago, and they were the ones who had some idea of how helpful a union would be. Again, most of the workers—I know from experience— are already ingrained into the system: they speak when only they’re spoken to. That kind of militarized-style of hospitality only leads to the worst kind of conformity. So there was a ton of isolation, mainly because of the competitiveness, but there were sectors of the pool and beach who spoke out against it, but it was nothing too noticeable. If you were lucky, like these two brothers, then you already knew the situations at hand.
M: What got you to start organizing there? Was there some spark or cause that made you think it was time to start doing something?
E: It’s the service sector, why waste a second not to organize? This is an industry that takes you nowhere, unless you want to reach the level of management, but even there, you’re someone else’s boss.
But to more accurately answer your question, the spark comes at the very second you walk into work and punch in: you’re working for someone else at that point.
M: When did you start to think you could fight back though? From the beginning?
E: My gut feeling was that there was something I could do, it’s just that I didn’t know how to, hence I joined the IWW. And the IWW was helpful. For instance, the IWW provided workshops that were tremendously helpful in assisting me in ways to work and combat these systems of power. And I used them, to the best extent I could, but if it weren’t for the IWW, I would have had zero knowledge about the interventions of a business union (and I was approached by them, too). So from a revolutionary perspective, it gave me an open eye—fighting back, that is. Fighting back doesn’t mean throwing yourself into the pit; it means getting along with others and doing things collectively.
In fact, another worker and I fought for better pay and we managed to get $10.50 an hour for food running, up from $10. But if it weren’t for my co-worker, that wouldn’t have happened. I had to convince him to fight for better pay. He was fine with $10 an hour until the workload picked up. It took him a while but I got him to fight with me.
M: How did you convince him to fight? And how did you all win that raise?
E: He was the food-running veteran. He was hired as a barback but eventually they forced him out and into food running. When I got there, it was just him doing the work by himself, but at the beginning, it was slow. I maintained loyalty with him, but I was always persistent and I wanted him to know that he was worth more than what he was bargaining for. Every worker is worth more than what they’re paid. That’s not even an argument; you have to be a fascist to argue otherwise.
But anyway, when we were hired, they were paying him $9 an hour as a food runner; another runner and I were getting paid $10. It wasn’t until he found out about the pay disparity that he really became angry. We didn’t know it at the time, but they eventually back-paid him all the dollars for that month.
M: How did that happen? Just by confronting management individually?
E: No, collectively. He was getting paid the wages he worked as a barback. When they transferred him as a runner, they just kept him at $9 (the wage actual wage for a runner is $10).
M: Did that include the raise to 10.50? Or did that come later?
E: That came later.
M: How’d you get that?
E: Same, we went to the manager. The managers promised us a raise, but it wasn’t easy. We had to ask every week, reminding them...The managers had so much to do, because of the busy season, and just to find time for us...I thought we got lucky. I mean, managers were clocking in at 7 a.m. to help whatever way they could (of course, all the real physical labor was on the workers), but they were stressed out.
M: And eventually they gave in?
E: They did, but only with that issue. We had other issues, all completely ignored, as usual.
M: Were there ever times when your co-workers confronted management together?
E: Oh, yeah, of course. I remember one time, a female pool server was demanding promised pay or something, but it was only involving the servers (the majority of whom were females). I was at my lunch break, and I saw this pool server confront the boss, I had never seen anything like it. But she was demanding better pay or something like that.
M: Anything come of it?
E: No, nothing. Just promises.
M: Anything you would do differently a second time around?
E: Doing things a second time around means learning from your mistakes—and there were mistakes, without a doubt. Personally, I’m someone who goes through SAD [social anxiety disorder] so just talking in groups or whatever is a tough task in and of itself. Having joined a syndicalist union has helped me to break these fears, it’s helped me to jump into situations which I would have never dared to do. Furthermore, just having a base of solidarity has played a critical role in my politics, which is why I joined the IWW in the first place (I’ve been anti-authoritarian since I was a kid).
Originally posted: January 6, 2014 at Miami IWW
Republished in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)
Around the union
An update on various IWW activities around the world as of April 2014.
• The Boston IWW is in a celebratory mood because Insomnia Cookies has agreed to pay four Wobbly strikers back pay after they were illegally terminated for union activity. The Boston General Membership Branch (GMB) has been busy signing up new members, especially in the many fast food joints in and around Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. Conditions in the area are ripe for organizing, with rampant injustices such as the routine denial of premium overtime pay, refusal to pay workers their compensation, and managers’ insistence that employees should work off the clock. Harvard Square could emerge as the site of a new “corridor campaign” for our branch, with the goal of making this trendy neighborhood a hotbed of unionization. We’ve produced a new flyer for outreach to retail and service workers that is targeted at employees of Insomnia, where the campaign to unionize local stores continues. Our Insomnia Cookies IWW Organizing Committee has been holding productive and well-attended meetings. We are also making store visits (when managers are elsewhere) to introduce workers to the One Big Union. All fellow workers are invited to please come to Boston and visit our vibrant and growing branch! And what better place to come “salt” than our city by the sea, plagued by gentrification but also simmering with barely contained class rage?
• The Denver GMB will be hosting commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre in both Boulder and Denver, Colo. There is renewed interest in the IWW along the Front Range of the Rockies with members in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver, Ft. Collins and Pueblo. The Denver GMB is investigating holding an organizing training in the next couple of months.
• Lithuanian IWWs are forming a Regional Organizing Committee.
• Belgium IWWs will be attending Work People’s College in Berlin this summer.
• The Portland IWW and Portland Solidarity Network activists won several wage theft cases in February. They are still working on the campaign for back wages against a large Asian grocery store. An IWW-led campaign to raise the minimum wage by $5 per hour is going into neighborhoods with IWW and supporters canvasing. IWWs also helped blockade scabs at the Port of Vancouver, Wash., and again against a Guatemalan vessel.
• An organizer from West Scotland reports that Wobblies in the United Kingdom are sending £1,200 for the European Work People’s College in Berlin. The Clydeside GMB is also subsidizing travel for two delegates to Berlin in July. The Sussex branch was unfortunately dechartered. There are 802 members in all of the United Kingdom (with the 90 members in Scotland included in that number). The IWW National Conference will be held in London late May, but the exact date is not yet finalized. A workshop for trainers will be held in Birmingham in April.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)
What went wrong with the organizing: the elephant in the room of political will
An article by Scott Nappalos about how organizing has taken a new direction in our current society where we have to build movements rather than join, and that a new level of commitment is needed.
Organizing has taken a new direction in our current society where we have to build movements rather than join. A new level of commitment is needed. Miami IWW member Scott Nikolas Nappalos provides a great analysis and critique of organizing today in the piece below.
When people hit a brick wall organizing today they are very quick to look at big picture aspects to explain their failures. For many of the tiniest fights we see calls for large revisions of structure of social organizations, committees, and demographics in countless versions. Ideology is also popular with a deep drive towards critique and adopting new ideologies as technical fixes for hurdles in organizing; forms of born-again ideology. The worst of this is relying on large-scale analyses of the economic environment to explain away concrete daily problems that seek to persuade people not to fight in vast sections of society and the globe because of often amateurish crystal gazing and doit- yourself political economy. The focus is generally on us, likely because of how demobilized society is, which shifts the view away from the people struggling.
There is a basic element of organizing people to fight around their daily interests that rarely is discussed and yet is a fundamental aspect of nearly everything political happening today. A question we should ask ourselves perpetually is: do these people want to organize? As revolutionaries we ask people not only to engage in their immediate problems, but also to take on the system itself; to abolish the wage system and hierarchical exploitation and oppression. Even people’s immediate issues, say low wages, take a significant commitment of time and emotional energy to deal with. People have to be willing to plan, meet, and exert their resources towards something they may already hate (their job, their conditions). There are lots of detours that allow people to avoid this stuff. We move jobs, we change buildings, move to different cities and neighborhoods; try to avoid the police, take matters into our own hands, etc.
The forces against sustained action are powerful, especially today when there is no liberatory social force that intervenes consistently within society. People are working in isolation with bad odds when there are more pleasant things they could probably be doing. Simply put, it’s often better for people not to fight than to fight in the immediate. Organizing involves sinking more of one’s life into something that makes you miserable with little prospect for big successes, and more than likely you may end up worse off. Organizing goes against the current both of overt oppression and coercion, and tactics that allow people to delay, defer, or avoid the nasty stuff in society. This is something that should be recognized, understood, and inspires us to put minds together to deal with it.
In the film “The Wobblies,” an old IWW member retells the story of a recruit who asked “What does this membership card entitle me to?” to which the IWW delegate said “Fifteen years in the penitentiary.” The recruit signed up. That example provides good contrast to common thinking about how this all works. Today people often fixate on victories, material gains, and winning something for people. The problem is that fighting often involves losing more on a social level than any immediate gains we might achieve. Even when we have all-out wins, it’s not clear that it is actually a win for those people. This Wobbly who signed up did so not because of concrete gains they might have gotten, but in spite of the misfortune that would ensue. Put politics aside and think of all the meaningful, pleasant, and important social things someone has to sacrifice in order to do the tedious, tense, and often hostile work of organizing. Attempts to understand commitment to political projects in terms of a cost-benefit analysis will trip up here consistently.
To build movement we need sustained long-term action on a consistent basis— something that is not likely to be enjoyable, filled with victories, or motivating by itself. What allows people to maintain this action is bigger. A will to struggle in spite of everything comes from deeper inspiration; ideas and ethics that carry people through misery. Union contracts and campaigns usually focus on breadand- butter issues like wages, healthcare, retirement, etc. Yet when attending union meetings where grievances are aired and you talk to workers organizing, you hear distinctly different discussions. Workers persistently raise issues of respect, dignity, and injustice as their primary motivating force. The union often channels that anger into those wage fights, but the issue is different. To carry things out, people need to be inspired to work towards a better world. In doing so, they become willing to do things that do not make sense on a strict dollars and sense basis, and even can make them happy having contributed to something bigger in life.
Just do the math. I once participated in a four-month strike allegedly for a $1.50 per hour raise. At the workplace, turnover was high with most workers lasting less than a year and nearly all less than three years. The costs of being on strike immediately went beyond anything the workers would ever see. Likewise the workers were willing to occupy board members’ businesses and be arrested to help win the strike, incurring more personal harm, both financial and otherwise. When the union pressed to settle the strike it was for 25 cents per hour, and after the negotiating of the contract nearly everyone quit. A few likely were disillusioned, but for many it was an eye-opening experience. Some co-workers went on to become active in unions and more committed to working in their industry. The logic of this scenario makes no sense unless we look to the motivations of the workers that go beyond their immediate demands. In fact the demands seem to matter very little beyond the will to address injustice, work against management that is perceived to be tyrannical and wrong, and a willingness to work for something better.
I call this the “collective mood” or “political will.” Rather than an appendage to our work, it should take a center role in our thinking about how things play out. Today there are countless opportunities to organize and potentially motivating issues, and yet given the circumstances people often choose not to. That is a reality we have to deal with, and that should be pointed out in our work. When you pull that element out, it becomes apparent why people are not ready at any moment to dedicate the bulk of their life to politics. Without the collective mood to fight, the best organizing will ebb and flow with the amount we are asking from people and their level of frustration with short-term issues. This is in keeping with most recent fights. Places heat up, people mobilize, and then life goes back to normal with the exception of a few individuals who become more active for years, and a smaller minority for their lives.
Coming to act can change people even when they lose. Some come to see the possibility of a better life through experiences with organizing, and this can open space for revolutionaries. Our job is not just to help open that mental space, but also to offer our analysis, ideas, and values that can carry people from immediacy to the bigger picture. For those who are interested, we need to work hard to both prepare them for future fights and inspire them to carry on and go deeper. With others who don’t want to continue, our focus should be on planting seeds and understanding that there has been an increase in the social experience of struggle; things which may ripen at other times. If we can sustain individual militants and work towards networks of organizers who come out of struggle, those linkages and experiences can form a backbone of social organization that isn’t identical with our projects or groups, but that can in crucial moments bear fruit.
This is part of why it is so demobilizing when people try to hide, remove, or actively prevent revolutionary politics from the day-to-day work of organizing. Without engaging people politically we are abdicating our ability to provide tools that can motivate potential militants. It also gives us clarity as to why apolitical and neutral organizing is such an idealistic approach; the very basis for action comes out of how people think about the world and their actions. All action is inherently political, and our response can contribute to or stunt its trajectory.
In the present environment we have to take into account that likely only a few will want to commit themselves to sticking it out for the long haul. That doesn’t mean necessarily we change what we do, but it should change our expectations and how we respond to difficulties. When we can contribute to making organizing happen, it does have an impact on people’s lives and thinking even when they return.
This situation could change. There are times when broad swaths of society catch a wind and hunker down for social change. By recognizing the role of political ideas and ethics in motivating and the force of political will within social action, we arm ourselves to understand and act on different situations that may come at us. Today this means finding ways to plant seeds, spread collective activity that can help transform people, and investing in people who rise above and become willing to commit to something bigger.
Originally posted: Febuary 2, 2014 at Miami IWW
Republished in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)
The best brick you’ll ever read: why Wobblies should read “Capital”
A short review by Lou Rinaldi of Capital, which he advocates for Wobblies and the like-minded to read.
Karl Marx’s “Capital” looks like a brick and weighs about the same. And it’s an old brick, from 1867. Seeing it, you might think, “I can’t do this, it’s too long, too boring. Plus, it’s so old, this cannot possibly be relevant.” You’d be wrong. And you’d be wrong to think that “Capital” is too hard for you to comprehend. I think a big problem is that, as working-class people, we doubt ourselves and our ability to be intelligent. After all, we’re told we’re stupid nearly every day by our bosses! You should be assured that although a work like “Capital” may seem like a wall that cannot be scaled, it is possible to get through it. There are even various guides out there to help you along the way that might be worth looking into!
Another reservation you might have is thinking of it as something only for academics. If Marx had intended for his work to be relegated to the universities, he would never have done the work he did. Instead he presents us with a tool: an in-depth study of capitalism, a critique of capitalist ideology, and strategy and vision for a new society. Although parts are undoubtedly difficult to read, there are others that are extremely readable. Don’t let a few tough pages hold you back, read at a pace that is comfortable. Skip parts you have trouble with and come back to them later. But don’t give up on it, it’s a book you’re supposed to read—it’s not just for European professors.
We should give “Capital” a chance, especially as members of a revolutionary union like the IWW. In the past, Wobblies have taken “Capital” and Marx’s writing seriously. So seriously that our Preamble nearly quotes Marx verbatim when it proclaims we ought to replace the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” with the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.” The founding convention of the IWW in 1905 included discussion of Marx and his ideas and after the union was formed, some IWW branches formed reading groups to study “Capital.” The IWW’s political education pamphlet “An Economic Interpretation of the Job” from 1922 was essentially a short synopsis of Marx’s ideas in “Capital.” And from the 1910s to the 1930s the IWW Work People’s College repeatedly offered courses on Marx’s critical understanding of capitalist economics. There is a history within our own organization of taking this book seriously, of studying, and using it as a tool in our work. However, there are many ways to read “Capital.” The way we should think about it is reading it politically, that is, reading it as a weapon in our hands. If we can think of it this way, then it becomes an invaluable tool, a practical book that is important for all revolutionary, class-conscious workers to read.
A Description of Capitalism Like No Other
The breadth of “Capital, Volume 1” is simply unmatched by other works on the economy. Marx was relentless in his research on how the system of capitalism functions. He researched history, economic figures, and philosophic works in order to complete the book. Each chapter in “Capital” is another piece of the puzzle for understanding how the capitalist economy functions.
“Capital” touches on everything that has become part of our everyday lives, things which every working person experiences. Why we work, how we work, how we are exploited: Marx takes these subjective experiences and puts them into a larger view of things, in the perspective of a class and class struggle. An important component of the book is a history of working-class struggle against capital and the system it tries to implement. This makes the book an important weapon for revolutionaries. It helps to know this history, and to know how the capitalist system works overall.
Take chapter 25, for instance, which is about “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.” This chapter describes the effect that creating profit has on working people in terms of wages and employment, but also the lengths that businesses must go in terms of monopolizing an industry. This describes an important element of capitalism: its flexibility and its ability to be dynamic. It has the ability to make wages and standards of living rise, to make them endurable. At the same time, it can increase the levels of exploitation and increase the amount of misery we experience. These fluctuations can create space for militant reform movements, movements like Fight For 15 that seek only to win reforms and keep capital intact while using some radical forms or strategies, to make their demands and even win them as long as the value-form is not challenged, or in other words, so long as the circulation of commodities does not stop.
A Critique of Capitalist Ideology
“Capital” becomes a weapon for revolutionaries in two ways: as a lesson on struggle and on ideology. The subheading of “Capital” is “A Critique of Political Economy.” What does Marx mean by this? His work not only shows us the technical processes that are performed in capitalism, but also the ideological war on the working-class consciousness. Namely, Marx looks to famous early economists, names that many of us will recognize: Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo.
Marx contends that while these thinkers seem to “get” capitalism, they have absolutely no understanding of the real, social processes that occur in the system. Their analysis of capitalism is only a crude interpretation of what is happening in the daily lives of workers. The result is gross dismissals of the horrors of the system, and their so-called “science” thinly veils a true disdain of the poor and exploited. In particularly damning phrases, Marx summarizes and condemns all that capitalism truly stands for, from degrading a worker “to the level of an appendage of a machine” to dragging our partners and children “beneath the wheel of the juggernaut of capital.”
A Strategy and Vision for a New Society
“Capital” is a weapon for workers, not merely a trophy on your bookshelf or an academic thought experiment. Because it chronicles the history of the implementation of capitalism and workers’ resistance to it, we learn something about ourselves when we read it. We can see ourselves in the processes and struggles that Marx describes. This is class consciousness.
The description of the working day, in chapter 10, shows how the day was lengthened and shortened through struggle. This chapter is of enormous relevance to us today as the gains of the old labor movement are torn apart and today, like then, “Capital [is] celebrating its orgies.” Recently in Poland, the eight-hour workday was taken away from the workers, and in the global South the working day remains similar to Marx’s time: 12 or more hours a day. If Poland, whose loss of privileges won through struggle, is an indicator of anything, it may be that this is the direction the West is going. Without a combative movement to fight for something better we will see more places go in the direction that Poland has gone in.
In identifying the features of capitalism, “Capital” gives us some heading. It shows us that our workplaces are battlegrounds of conflict. It shows us that our lived experiences are important and worth fighting for, to improve them, to live in a truly human community. It shows us, conscious revolutionaries, how to examine the economy to choose the best places to strike and advance the struggle, to make gains for our class.
In reading “Capital” it’s important to remember that in the struggles of workers we can see the beginning of the creation of a new society, a classless society. “The only way to understand the system is through conceiving of its destruction,” as the Italian radical publication Quaderni Rossi put it in 1962 (as quoted in Steve Wright’s “Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism”). Or, as Marx once put it, we need to “imagine, for a change, an association of free men (sic), working with the means of production held in common.” As IWW members and members of the working class, this is our struggle. “Capital” describes in detail what we’re fighting against and enriches our fight to achieve a new society.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)