Industrial Worker (June 2012)

Articles from theJune 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

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We are the heirs to the Tulsa Outrage

An article by a member of the restablished Tulsa IWW about the Tulsa Outrage, an incident in 1917 in which Wobblies were tarred and feathered by pro-war vigilantes.

On 9 November 1917, the day after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, 16 IWW men sat in a jail cell in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On paper, they were convicted of vagrancy. In reality, the charge was defiance of the capitalist class.

Oklahoma was infamous as a hotbed of radicalism, home to at least three IWW locals and more members of the Socialist Party than any other state. The state’s official symbols– a red flag with a white star, and the motto, “Labor conquers all things,”– made this working-class militancy official. Oklahoma was a place of institutionalized radicalism.

Three months earlier, hundreds of Oklahoman tenant farmers had armed themselves and marched to overthrow Woodrow Wilson and end US participation in the Great War. The Green Corn Rebellion, as it would later become known, was quickly defeated, but it set authorities on edge against radicals across the state. As Judge T.D. Evans, presiding over the case of the Tulsan Wobblies, remarked, “These are no ordinary times.”

The spread of unionism among oil workers and farmers also moved Oklahoma authorities to anxiety. As ever, the press performed loyally, condemning the IWW as terroristic while simultaneously calling on readers to lynch IWW organizers.

“It is no time to dally with the enemies of the country,” read a November 1917 Tulsa World editorial. “The unrestricted production of petroleum is as necessary to the winning of the war as the unrestricted production of gunpowder. We are either going to whip Germany or Germany is going to whip us. The first step in the whipping of Germany is to strangle the I. W. W.’s. Kill them, just as you would kill any other kind of a snake. Don’t scotch ‘em; kill ‘em. And kill ‘em dead. It is no time to waste money on trials and continuances and things like that. All that is necessary is the evidence and a firing squad.”

It was in this atmosphere of working-class militancy pitted against patriotic hysteria that 16 IWW men found themselves imprisoned in Tulsa. With them was one Jack Sneed, a non-member who had been thrown in jail, apparently by accident, during a group arrest of IWWs.

As midnight approached, the prisoners were removed from their cells and driven away from the jail in three police vehicles. The New York Times later claimed that the prisoners were intended to be “taken by a roundabout route to I.W.W. headquarters,” though the IWW Tulsa branch secretary, who was among the prisoners, later told the National Civil Liberties Bureau that he believed the subsequent incident was planned ahead of time by the police.

Shortly after departing, the convoy met a group of armed men dressed in black robes and masks. They identified themselves as the “Knights of Liberty,” which the Tulsa World described as a minor offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. The police delivered the prisoners and vehicles into the custody of the Knights, who tied the prisoners’ hands and drove them to a secluded ravine west of the city. At the ravine, they were met by a crowd of additional armed Knights.

By the headlights of the police vehicles, the prisoners were stripped. One by one, they were tied to a tree and lashed with pieces of rope until blood ran down their backs. Then came the action for which the incident would become best known: the 16 IWWs– and the one unfortunate bystander– were tarred and feathered.

“After each one was whipped another man applied the tar with a large brush, from the head to the seat,” wrote the Tulsa branch secretary. “Then a brute smeared feathers over and rubbed them in… After they had satisfied themselves that our bodies were well abused, our clothing was thrown into a pile, gasoline poured on it, and a match applied. By the light of our earthly possessions, we were ordered to leave Tulsa, and leave running and never come back.”

In the 94 years following the Tulsa Outrage, the worst nightmares of the Tulsan IWWs became reality. Oklahoma has become the X in “We must struggle so that X never happens.” For many, Oklahoma is synonymous with hopeless backwardness, its socialist history buried by an evangelical state government which, this April, proposed to alter the state motto from “Labor conquers all things” to “Oklahoma – in God we trust!” The Knights of Liberty now run things in the capitol as well as on the streets.

But the red flame of Wobbly radicalism has also returned to the Sooner State. On January 12, the Tulsa General Membership Branch was constituted with 13 charter members from across Oklahoma. We’ve spent the past four months concentrating on the minutiae of establishing ourselves– setting schedules, hammering out meeting protocol, printing assessment stickers, announcing our existence to the community at large and working to clear up misconceptions of who we are and what we’re about.

We’ve also focused on providing training for our members, many of whom are, like myself, quite new to organizing. Since chartering, we have participated in Organizer Training 101s held by the Omaha and Kansas City, Kansas GMBs, and have arranged to send a branch member to this June’s Work People’s College in Minnesota. We’re currently in the process of coordinating our own Organizer Training 101 to be held here in Tulsa later this month.

The Tulsa GMB has taken as its symbol the Purple Martin, a bird known for its alleged habit of spreading rapidly into new areas. We hope that, with the new resources available to us as a branch, we will be able to help spread the philosophy of working-class emancipation across Oklahoma. Oklahoma has never been afflicted by political moderacy. It is a place where the injustices of capitalism are sharply felt. Oklahoma ranks 45th among the states in terms of standard of living and third in terms of incarceration rate, according to the American Human Development Project and the Department of Justice, respectively. The Oklahoman people are impatient for change, and many are ready to mobilize against the immigrants, the welfare recipients and the “socialists” whom they believe to be the primary exploiters within society.

To some onlookers, particularly those unaware of Oklahoman history, reactionary attitude in the state appears monolithic and impenetrable. However, anyone who visits Oklahoma’s workplaces will inevitably hear self-describedly conservative workers express, sometimes in surprisingly specific terms, a desire for worker control of industry. Once, one of my coworkers at a Norman, Oklahoma supermarket, while complaining about our stingy wages, explained to me an idea basically identical to Marx’s concept of surplus value– and this despite her being a self-identified “hardcore Republican.” Some of the people who have been most successfully inoculated against the grotesque strawman of “socialism” are basically in favor of socialistic development.

We believe, then, that another transitional phase may be approaching– that it is not written in the stars that Oklahoma must always be ruled by the spirit of fanaticism and ignorance that incited the Tulsa Outrage. The Tulsa GMB invites the rest of the One Big Union to support us in our efforts to organize a land that is always tempestuous and often hostile, but never without the promise of unexpected new developments.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (June 2012)

Phoenix cab drivers: “We’re 21st century slaves”

An article by a member of the Phoenix IWW about the conditions of taxi drivers in that city.

Imagine yourself as an American slave in the year 1806. After a 17-hour work day, you feel exhausted and hopelessly depressed. Unfortunately, you’ll only get about five hours of sleep before enduring another grueling day of punishment and undignified servitude. This sounds like an accurate description of slavery, right? Now, here’s the shocking part: This scenario is very much alive in America today. Today, these workers are called not slaves, but cab drivers.

For the past few months, the members of our humble branch in Phoenix, Ariz. have been speaking with local cab drivers regarding their working conditions. Each one of them has shared a similarly gutwrenching story. We have spoken with several drivers throughout the valley, but the most disturbing grievances have come from those who work at Sky Harbor Airport. Recently, I sat down with one of them to conduct an interview. I was originally going to keep his identity anonymous to protect his job but he personally gave me permission to use his real name. Hence, I will now introduce you to the world of Kris.

It was a chilly Wednesday night when I met up with him at the airport. I waited patiently in a room specifically designated for on-call cab drivers. The place resembled some kind of torture chamber straight out of a prison camp. The entire room is made of concrete. There are no pictures or decorations anywhere, and two tiny TVs hang in front of the south wall. Many of the drivers play ping-pong to pass the time. I sat down on one of the benches and looked around. It seemed rather peculiar that everyone around me had migrated from an impoverished or war-torn country.

As I sat there waiting, I sparked up a conversation with a gentleman from India. I told him that I was from a workers’ union and that I was there to help. Immediately, his eyes lit up with delight. He gave me his phone number and said he would love to participate. Suddenly, my interviewee showed up. It was crowded, so we decided to go outside. As we walked away, the Indian man thanked me and said, “God bless you.”

We sat down on a bench right outside while the cold wind blew in our faces. The black beanie on Kris’s head almost completely concealed his brown hair. He is a middle-aged man with a wife and three kids. I decided to begin the interview with some personal questions about his life. He spoke with a thick accent and many of his sentences were in broken English. Originally from communist Bulgaria, he came here 15 years ago to live out the American dream. For the past four years, he has been working as a cab driver for the Yellow Cab company. At first, the job sounded promising: You make good money, and you get to create your own schedule. However, Kris’s optimism soon turned into a nightmare.

You rent the car from the company, so you are considered an independent contractor. Ideally, you are your own boss and you make the rules; at least, it appears so. The problem is that the lease rates are way too high. Kris claims to pay $854, which must be paid, in advance, for the entire week. If you don’t pay it by each Tuesday at noon, you are charged a $25 late fee.

There are several hundred drivers working at the airport, and new drivers continue to be hired, which makes business very competitive. On an average day, a driver only picks up about 10 customers. So, for the majority of the day, you are working to pay for your lease. In order to make any money for yourself, you have to work a minimum of 14 to 15 hours a day, and sometimes up to 17 hours. Taking a vacation or a day off is out of the question since you have to pay the lease in advance. Kris said, “You prepay for the whole week. So, if you decide to take a day off, then that comes from your pocket.” Like many other drivers, he only takes one day off a week, although some drivers work seven days per week.

According to Kris and several other drivers we spoke with, the airport contract dictates that about $42 of each driver’s daily earnings goes directly to the airport. Their agreement also includes a point system for the drivers. Consequently, if drivers do something the airport and the cab companies don’t like, they will get points added to their record. If enough points are accumulated, they get summoned to a hearing where they will receive a punishment. Generally, the points are given for petty things. For example, Kris received 10 points for supposedly being “loud and boisterous” in response to an occasion during which he told a customer about his poor working conditions. After 20 points, Kris was suspended for five days.

Strangely enough, almost every driver we’ve talked to has been to one of these hearings. If this isn’t bizarre enough, the contract manager of the city, a man by the name of Louis Matamoros, is the judge during the hearings. He and other city workers are constantly watching the drivers with cameras and harassing them with threats of suspension. The person in charge of this operation is a man named Hossein Joe Dibazar, the owner of Yellow Cab. Whatever he says, goes. As a result of all this monitoring, the drivers are left feeling subdued and too frightened to speak their minds about any negative experiences on the job. Kris says, “You ask many drivers, and pretty much everybody is telling you the same. We’re slaves! [We’re] 21st century slaves!”

As a result of long hours, lack of sleep, constant harassment and unethical supervision, Kris has become a nervous wreck. He is severely depressed and is now on antidepressants. He rarely has time to see his wife and three children. In his words, he “basically feels like an uncle to his kids” instead of a father. This condition is shared by many of the drivers we’ve spoken with.

This is essentially the same capitalist technique that gigantic corporations use all the time. Companies like General Motors (GM) send jobs overseas so they can pay foreigners a measly salary in order to boost their own profits. However, you can’t send the transportation business overseas. Instead, the owners hire refugees and raise the lease rates. Meanwhile, they pay off the airport to help keep the workers quiet and, ultimately, everyone makes some extra cash. You may ask yourself, “Why don’t these drivers just quit?” Some actually do, but many have no choice because the economy is bad and they don’t have the time to look for a new job. Some drivers are used to this type of mistreatment; many of them come from countries where these conditions are completely normal. This is all part of the exploitation: Find a group of people who are already vulnerable, and use them to your advantage.

About nine out of 10 of the drivers we have spoken to say they are interested in forming a union. Unfortunately, many of them are frightened of losing their jobs and seem reluctant at times. We held an “Introduction to the IWW” class a couple months ago and met our goal of getting a few to attend. So, our task now is to motivate these drivers to take the lead in this campaign. Since the drivers are considered independent contractors, they are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Therefore, our only option is to use the IWW’s practice of solidarity unionism.

While I was finishing this article, Kris informed me that he had been suspended for three months. At first, I was concerned that union activity might have had something to do with it. However, this was not the case; once again Kris was accused of being “loud and boisterous.” I immediately made plans to meet up with him that weekend to get the full story.

It was a warm Saturday afternoon when another branch member and I met Kris and his family at a park. That was the day I realized that Kris is the kind of guy that believes in standing up for himself and refuses to put up with injustice. Consequently, this is what led to his suspension. Apparently, speaking ill of a corrupt industry one too many times labels you a “troublemaker.” Matamoros summoned him for another review, but this time, he was accompanied by “Joe” Dibazar and four other officials. As a result of this hearing, Kris was suspended for three months. A few days later, I met up with Kris again for a photo shoot. He brought a letter from Louis Matamoros, which stated that Kris is permanently suspended and is no longer allowed to work at the airport.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (June 2012)

Reviews: beyond the usual scope of discussion on the working class

A review of Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini's collection of essays, Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control From the Commune to the Present.

Azzellini, Dario and Immanuel Ness, Editors. Ours to Master and to Own: Workers’ Control From the Commune to the Present. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011 . Paperback, 400 pages, $19.00.

Much recent discussion and scholarship has gone into dissecting the decline in the strength of the working class in the United States. For the most part, the emphasis has been on the steady weakening of trade unions and on excavating why union officials have been unwilling to attempt new forms of resistance. In such a context, discussions of workers’ control of the means of production—how it might look, what about it has succeeded and failed in the past, its relationship to revolutionary change—may seem a stretch. However, maybe it doesn’t. For perhaps what the U.S. working class needs as much as anything is to explore alternatives, not only to neoliberalism, but to traditional unionism, even that of the social movement type.

“Ours to Master and to Own: Workers Control from the Commune to the Present,” edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini, goes a long way in assisting us in that exploration. Ness and Azzellini are well-positioned to put together such an important work; both have long radical histories as writers, teachers and activists. The result of their efforts is a rich collection of stories of workers seizing control of production in different epochs under a vast array of circumstances in numerous countries.

Councils, in a nutshell, are self-management organizations established by workers to administer production, usually in periods of great tumult. They may take shape in a single plant, in an entire industry or, in a revolutionary situation, in many plants and industries simultaneously. Through them, workers oversee all aspects of production including those which, under capitalism, are done by owners and bosses. The forms differ greatly but the common thread is that those who do the work should decide how it’s done.

There are two important themes that emerge as one reads through the cases collected by Ness and Azzellini. One is that many workers across time and around the world have understood better than any revolutionary theoretician that the working class controlling its own work is the way it should be. Second, councils, apart from any trade union or vanguard party, develop spontaneously and organically as the system of private ownership slips into crisis. As detailed in the book, this development occurs so frequently in such instances as to be almost a natural phenomenon.

“Ours to Master and to Own” begins with four overview essays, then moves on to 18 case histories grouped into four fairly loose categories. Significantly, stories of the global South are well-represented, as Argentina, Venezuela, and other historically under-developed countries are home to some of the most important contemporary experiments in workers’ control. With upheaval rocking much of the Middle East and Latin America, these case histories, together with those where councils were an integral part of anti-colonial insurgencies in Indonesia and Algeria, take on an additional timeliness.

“Ours to Master and to Own” also includes a number of familiar cases. Perhaps the three best known occurred in revolutionary (or at least what were perceived by some of the participants as revolutionary) situations: The Soviets in Russia leading up to and immediately after 1917, the councils in Germany during World War I up to the unsuccessful uprising of 1919, and the anarchist-led movement in Spain in the 1930s. Each of these chapters is highly instructive, with nuanced analyses of the wide array of challenges the different groups faced. For the most part, each of these council movements failed simply because the forces aligned against them were too strong. However, there are valuable lessons within each as well that the contributing authors do an excellent job of mining.

Equally important are more recent cases such as Argentina during the economic crisis of 2001, which is compellingly summarized by Marina Kabat. Out of a movement that began in response to neoliberalism, workers took over factories and helped topple President Fernando de la Rua. As the takeovers evolved, workers grappled with how best to affect a degree of control within a capitalist society— something that is no easy feat, and many efforts have failed or have been co-opted. As with the uprisings in the early 20th century, however, there is much in the experience of value. As Kabat writes of the takeovers, “an objective study of their characteristics and shortcomings will help remove obstacles and develop their complete potential for the future,” especially since “[t]he reprise of the economic crisis has opened new horizons for the taken factories.”

Other chapters of note are two from Eastern Europe, one on Yugoslavia by Goran Music and one on Poland by Zbiginew Marcin Kowalewski. Both document ongoing struggles for autonomy in societies that purported to be workers’ states. The class conflict that surfaced quite dramatically in Poland in 1980 with the formation of Solidarity, for example, was the culmination of decades’ worth of work, rather than a brand new phenomenon. In Yugoslavia, Music relates the continuous contention between workers and the state over the form of self-management that lasted until the collapse of 1989.

Then there’s a fascinating case in India authored by Arup Kumar Sen, where workers in a variety of workplaces went head to head with a Communist state government within a capitalist society. Events unfolded much as those in other cases, and workers there faced many of the same obstacles. It would seem from so many examples that vanguardists are right in one thing they know, and that is the revolutionary potential of the working class. That they often fear it and have frequently been, from Lenin and Trotsky forward, as hostile to it as any capitalist is one of the most important lessons of this volume.

Trade unions, including ones of the left, have also frequently opposed working- class autonomy in the form of councils, especially at times of great upheaval. The period when fascism in Portugal was overthrown in 1974-75 is a prime example. As related by Peter Robinson, the alliance the Socialist unions forged with liberal military officials checked the possibility that the Revolutionary Councils of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors might expand their influence right at a point when something besides corporate liberalism was a possibility. Again, as we examine what was, we are left, too, to wonder what might have been.

Overall, though, the tone of “Ours to Master and to Own” is decidedly positive. In chapter after chapter, we can practically see workers contending with the most fundamental of revolutionary questions: What should the kind of society we want look like? How do we best get there? Again and again, as events unfold, great emphasis is placed on process. In fact, in case after case, a successful outcome, however else that be measured, is inseparable from process. Workers went forward as often as not without deeply elaborated theories but with a highly attuned sense that each was responsible to one another as well as to the future.

There is also much strategic discussion in “Ours to Master and to Own” that is of immense value. In a revolutionary situation, for example, do councils pre-figure an aborning working-class state? Or does their consolidation mark the beginning of the end of the state? If the former, what should the relationship of the councils be to the state? Although some of the contributors put forward more decisive answers than others, the overall tone of the book is that these are still open questions to be answered with greater experience.

Inclusion of at least a few chapters authored by workers might have added another dimension to “Ours to Master and to Own.” Workers are quoted throughout and their insights are meaningful parts of a number of the analyses. Hearing summaries and perhaps some tentative conclusions from on-the-ground participants could have provided an even fuller understanding of the subject at hand.

The specific experiences of women in worker councils are also largely invisible in these accounts, perhaps because industrial work has overwhelmingly been the domain of men and the councils largely the domain of the industrial workforce. Still, it would have been beneficial to hear about the role of women in at least a few of the case studies.

Though it is difficult to imagine any popular movement, working-class centered or otherwise, in which women would not play a prominent role, much of the work women do remains below the surface. It is for this reason that councils of the present and the future, at least those that are the most inclusive, may be influenced by cooperative economics, with its emphasis on the citizenry at all levels—be it worker, domestic laborer or consumer. At the same time, analysis that assumes the special role of women may help to bring into being richer, more inclusive council formations.

The wonderful value of “Ours to Master and to Own” is that its contributors collectively wrestle with precisely these kinds of big questions. Who should decide and which factors must be weighed in the deciding? These are not questions with easy answers, after all. “Ours to Master and to Own” is a valuable work. By thinking beyond the usual scope of radical discussions of the working class, Ness, Azzelini, and all of the contributors have provided fresh insights to the gnawing question of how workers—the social force that makes up a majority of the 99 percent—might go forward. Rich in history and devoid of blueprints, it’s well worth studying and discussing. It is all the better that a second volume is in the works.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (June 2012)