Industrial Worker (December 2014)

Articles from the December 2014 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

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Whole Foods workers demand higher wages and a union

A press release from an IWW campaign in San Francisco at Whole Foods, a natural foods chain supermarket.

On the afternoon of Nov. 6, a delegation of 20 cashiers, stockers, and cooks at Whole Foods Market in San Francisco initiated a temporary work stoppage to deliver a petition to Whole Foods management demanding a $5 per hour wage increase for all employees and no retaliation against workers for organizing a union. After the delegation presented the petition to management, workers and supporters held a rally outside the store, located at 4th and Harrison Streets in San Francisco’s South-of-Market district.

A worker must earn $29.83 per hour to afford a market-rate one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, according to a 2014 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Workers at the store currently earn from $11.25 to $19.25 per hour. The new minimum wage ordinance just approved by San Francisco voters will raise the city’s minimum to $12.25 per hour next year—less than half of what is needed to rent an apartment.

Over 50 workers from the 4th Street store signed the petition. In addition to demanding the $5 per hour wage increase, the petition raises issues about paid time off, hours and scheduling, safety and health, and a retirement plan.

Whole Foods is a multinational chain with over 400 stores in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, with $13 billion in annual sales, and 80,000 employees. Prices are high, which is why Whole Foods is colloquially known as “Whole Paycheck.”

Beneath Whole Foods’ glossy image of social responsibility, working conditions at Whole Foods reflect the low industry standards that dominate all food and retail industries. Despite the company’s claims to the contrary, low wages, constant understaffing, and inconsistent schedules are rampant company-wide. Just recently CEO John Mackey announced that the company would be phasing out fulltime positions for new hires. Meanwhile, workers say the company has forced them to shoulder more and more of the costs of their limited health benefits.

Whole Foods currently has over 100 stores in development. Case Garver, a buyer in the San Francisco store’s Prepared Foods department, has seen enough of the doublespeak. “It seems like every six months they open up a brand new store,” he stated, “while at the same time my manager turns around and says the company doesn’t have enough money to give us 40 hours a week. We’re tired of doing more with less.”

Azalia Martinez, a cashier at the store, relates that in addition to working full time for Whole Foods, going to school and fulfilling family obligations, she must take additional side jobs to make ends meet. “It’s extremely hard,” she said.

Despite the hardships, workers at the store know that we can win better wages by standing together. History proves that workers have the power to make change when we come together to fight for our interests. We are re-igniting a workers’ movement where we have power: on the job. This is our movement, we are capable of victory, and we are worth it.

For more information, visit: http://

Originally appearred in the Industrial Worker (December 2014)

Toronto harm reduction workers organize with the IWW

An article about a new IWW campaign of harm reduction workers in Toronto.

On Friday, April 4, 2014, over 100 harm reduction workers from across Toronto came together in a historic gathering. Although industry-wide meetings are common, conversation usually centers on the latest news and policies affecting services; people share information about toxic heroin on the streets, increased police carding in a certain area, or new laws around HIV and their impact on how we advise our service users and our friends. This time, the theme was different—the topic of discussion was work.

Workers shared stories of unionized workplaces with trade unions that wouldn’t have them as members; others spoke about the fact that management depends on workers being on social assistance to offset their low wages and lack of benefits. Workers doing the same jobs at two different sites realized that while one group was making $10 for three hours of work, the other was being paid $15 per hour. Some workers explained that they were paid with transit tokens and pizza. Some workers demanded a union.

On Nov. 11, after months of intensive organizing, the Toronto Harm Reduction Workers Union (THRWU), an affiliate of the Toronto General Membership Branch of the IWW, announced its existence to management at South Riverdale Community Health Centre and Central Toronto Community Health Centres. The union demanded employer recognition, a promise of non-retaliation for union activity, and a meeting with management to discuss important issues of workplace equity. The union also announced its intention to forgo the highly legalistic and bureaucratized Ontario Labour Relations Board certification process, electing for a strategy of solidarity unionism that allows workers full control over decision making. The THRWU is a city-wide organization, representing over 50 employed, unemployed, and student workers. It currently has members at over a dozen agencies, and is continuing to organize with the goal of unionizing all of the city’s harm reduction workers. “Along with the direct unionism approach, the THRWU campaign is also based on a multiple workplace organizing model that allows for organizing committees at multiple sites to pool their resources and experiences as they organize together. This solidarity is a precursor to expanding workers’ struggle to the broader industry,” explained THRWU workerorganizer Sarah Ovens.

Harm reduction work began with the implementation and provision of needle distribution for safer use of injection drugs. Before policy makers were ready to put aside stigma and ideology to adopt evidence-based practices proven to save lives and improve health and wellness, drug users were organizing themselves. They knew what needed to be done in order to protect themselves and their communities by sharing supplies and information about safer use. They formed formal and informal organizations to have each other’s backs and protect each other against the HIV epidemic that was devastating their communities. These strategies are second nature to people who live under the weight of poverty, criminalization and the war on drugs, which is a war on drug users and working-class people.

Following the implementation of the first needle exchange programs in the 1980s, these efforts led to the more wide-scale adoption and funding of harm reduction programs. As these programs became larger and more established, new struggles emerged around the need for these services to use the knowledge and expertise of those with lived experience of drug use, homelessness and incarceration. The City of Toronto now has over 45 agencies distributing needle exchange supplies, all of which rely on the participation and labour of people who use drugs. But the struggle continues. While trying to keep ahead of a never-ending barrage of cuts, clawbacks, and conservative attacks, front line workers’ focus has primarily been on the provision of services, and not on their own working conditions. Before the THRWU initiated its organizing campaign, many workers didn’t see themselves as real workers. Many workers were reluctant to advocate for improvements in their working conditions; instead, they were made to feel lucky to “have a job,” they said. This, despite the fact that front line workers are the experts that make harm reduction work.

Neoliberalism in the form of healthcare spending cuts and the implementation of corporate management structures has created new challenges for workers and service users. An increasing demand for post-secondary education, where previously lived experience was the only job requirement, has led to a shift in workplace culture. New pressures for the intensification of invasive data collection and reporting have taken workers away from necessary frontline work. This professionalization has watered down harm reduction work and has created a class of workers who are not seen as “actual workers” by their colleagues in the workplace. The THRWU is organizing to address this inequality and to improve services.

In the context of the “War on Drugs,” in which our fellow workers are the casualties, an organizing campaign of this nature is exciting. The THRWU is setting itself up to be a powerful voice for harm reduction workers in workplaces as well as in broader political struggles. THRWU worker-organizer Zoë Dodd summed up the general feeling of the union: “This is a very exciting moment for us as workers, and for harm reduction programs worldwide. We are ready and excited to join the fight to reduce the harms associated with work.”

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2014)

Farewell, Fellow Worker: Frederic S. Lee

An obituary by Jon Bekken of IWW member Fred Lee.

Former IWW General Executive Board chair Frederic Lee died on Oct. 23. A member of the IWW for 29 years, Fellow Worker (FW) Lee was also a leading economist, founder of the Heterodox Economics Newsletter, and at the time of his death, president-elect of the Association for Evolutionary Economics. His rigorous scholarship, international reputation, and commitment to organizing networks of solidarity helped open a space for alternative approaches in a field long dominated by worshippers of markets and wealth.

I first met Fred in 1985, when I was General Secretary-Treasurer of the Industrial Workers of the World. He was teaching at Roosevelt University at the time and came by the office one day to discuss Wobbly activities and our approach to building a new society based upon real democracy on the job, meeting everyone’s material needs, and creating the possibilities for all to live satisfying, fulfilling lives. I knew Fred was a Wobbly at heart the first time we met, but we talked several times over the next few months before he accepted his red card.

Over the decades that followed, Fred kept up his IWW membership. More importantly, he stayed true to those Wobbly ideals. He played the key role in reviving a moribund IWW organization in the British Isles while teaching there, served as chair of the IWW’s General Executive Board, and spearheaded the successful effort to liberate Joe Hill’s ashes from the U.S. National Archives, where the federal government was quietly holding them captive, and to scatter them around the world in accordance with Joe Hill’s last wishes (see photo above).

He joined the IWW Hungarian Literature Fund as veteran Wobblies were handing off this legacy to a younger generation, helping to support the publication of new IWW and labor literature. This included the annual labor history calendar he and I worked on together for so many years. In this work, as in all his work for the IWW, he did not hesitate to take on the drudge work of stuffing envelopes and hauling mail to the post office, realizing that there is little point to producing Wobbly literature without making sure it gets into workers’ hands.

In 2005, as we were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the IWW, Fred suggested a conference of radical economists and labor activists interested in economics to explore the intersection of Wobbly ideas and economic theory, and he made it happen. The paper he presented at that conference was a concrete example of how rigorous economic theory and workplace strategies derived from on-the-job struggles lead to a common emphasis on job control and struggles over the conditions of our labor (it appears in the book we co-edited, “Radical Economics and Labor”). Such struggles are fundamentally battles to assert our human dignity against an economic system determined to treat us as a cogs in the capitalist apparatus, as agents of profit-making, as subjects. It is in refusing subjugation and exploitation, Fred knew, that we discover our capacity and realize our humanity.

Fred was a Wobbly through and through; a rebel worker who never abandoned the cause. He knew the struggle was often difficult, but also that it was well worth fighting. Our power, he knew, lies in organization and in action. He will be missed.

FW Lee’s ashes will be distributed at the Haymarket Monument in Waldheim Cemetery; more information on his work and on the scholarship fund that continues his legacy can be found at http://

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2014)

¡Presente! FW Eugene Jack

An obituary, written by Harry Siitonen, of Eugene (Gene) Jack, a friend of the author who became a Wobbly late in life.

IWW member Eugene (Gene) Jack died in his late 80s in the latter part of September in Cascade, Mont.

Gene was a late recruit to the One Big Union in his early 1980s, living in retirement with his wife Patty at their ranch house in Cascade. I had known Gene since the 1960s when we worked together as printers in the composing room of the San Francisco Chronicle as members of San Francisco Typographical Union Local No. 21. Gene also worked as a typesetter in several commercial printing plants while living in San Francisco. Among them was Charles Faulk Typographers in downtown San Francisco where he served as “Chapel Chairman” (chief steward) for the union. We were all excited by the Delano Grape Strike of the farmworkers in the 1960s in the Central Valley in efforts to successfully organize California agricultural workers. Gene and I collected about $300 in donations from our fellow Chronicle printers, and one Saturday afternoon following work we took off for Delano to deliver this modest packet to the farm workers. We got there late at night and met a contingent of strikers in an empty packing shed, maintaining watch on any scab attempts to load grapes onto freight cars.

We were well-received by these mostly Mexican-American and Filipino strikers. This led to a well-organized campaign by Bay Area International Telecommunication Union (ITU) printers to assist farm worker organizing and boycott support for several years, led by the newly-minted United Farm Workers union.

After several years in printing, Gene left the trade and worked for a time as a cable TV installer in the early years of cable in Sonoma County, Calif. He later moved to Denver and owned and operated an electrical repair shop that he sold upon his retirement. With the proceeds he purchased a ranch house in Cascade, Mont., on a hillside overlooking the Missouri River to which he brought his second wife Patty.

Gene was born in Colorado on a small family cattle ranch. He helped his dad punch cattle during his growing years. During the Korean War he served in the U.S. Army, in Germany as I remember. Somewhere along the line he apprenticed to the printing trade and became a master craftsman in the typographical arts during its hot metal days.

We kept in touch during all these years through our retirements. Gene was active in the Veterans for Peace in Montana and at least once he and Patty joined in the annual demonstrations at Fort Benning, Ga. to protest the Army’s training of death squads for South and Central American dictators.

One year after wintering in Ensenada, Baja California to fish, the Jacks stopped to see me in San Francisco on their way back to Montana. As luck would have it, there was a march up Market Street from the Embarcadero to San Francisco Civic Center in which the IWW had a contingent, the purpose of which I don’t remember. I invited the Jacks to join us and Gene responded: “It’ll be an honor.”

During our email correspondence over the years I’d often bring him up to date about IWW activity. One time he informed me he had sent in his initial dues into IWW General Headquarters (GHQ), expressing pride in becoming a Wobbly, no matter how late in life. Last year he joined his Montana fellow workers for the first time in their commemoration of Frank Little in Butte and thoroughly appreciated the occasion.

Besides his wife Patty, Gene is survived by a son and daughter from an earlier marriage and some grandchildren.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2014)