Who’s in charge here?

John O’Reilly discusses the ways that organizing campaigns make themselves and others see them as legitimate.

Submitted by Recomposition on September 25, 2012

Who’s In Charge Here? Seizing the Means of Legitimacy Production in IWW Campaigns
by John O’Reilly

I’m terrible with high pressure situations. My hands were shaking and my stomach was twisted up, ready to get punched. Standing around in an abandoned Hooter’s restaurant in a mall in downtown Minneapolis, several dozen sandwich shop workers dressed in their black work t-shirts, IWW members crossing their fingers, and management types wearing ball caps and pursed lips crowded together expectantly as representatives from the National Labor Relations Board counted out the votes from the election that had just been conducted. I was in the back of the room and could just see pieces of paper being passed from one suit to another, considered, and a note taken.

The election had been a wild one, with management doing whatever it could to poison workers against the union, from the simple daily grind of anti-union lies to straight-up bribing workers in high school to vote no. The union had been encouraging fast food workers to do something outside of their experience: stand up to the bosses, together. I couldn’t deal with the intensity, I walked outside to where Erik was standing along the street as rush hour traffic moved slowly by, waiting with our picket signs for our post-election action. “How’s it going in there?” he asked. I smoke one or two cigarettes a year but I really needed one just then. “I’m not sure yet.” After a few minutes waiting nervously and discussing our impressions of the vote, I headed back inside. “They’re doing a recount to be sure, the margins were so close,” someone whispered to me as I approached the crowded former restaurant again, but it was clear by the tears of the faces of my friends that the union had lost. “Two lousy votes,” DB, an inshopper in a downtown store, said as I gave him a hug. As the small crew of anti-union workers and managers loudly made plans to go to a nearby bar for drinks – paid for by the franchise owners, of course – my friends held each other, wept, and wondered what to do next. Thus ended the vote for the IWW Jimmy John’s Workers Union in Minneapolis.

The election campaign was an intense moment where the campaign was forced to deal with a deadline that arguably pushed the organizing effort into overdrive. The aftermath was a similarly intense moment of realignment, with emphasis on unity and perseverance and plans to go forward. Union members recount a loud group sing-along of Solidarity Forever in the wee hours of the morning after the election, the core of the Jimmy John’s union together at the house of several organizers, vowing to keep going.

Months later, the NLRB would throw out the election vote as illegitimate due to the numerous illegal practices management had engaged in leading up to the election, including intimidation, harassment and vicious rumors about union member behavior. But it was clear to organizers that running another election campaign was not on the immediate agenda. Instead, they pushed for the “Ten Point Plan for Justice at Jimmy John’s,” a serious list of demands developed through a survey of the workers at the franchise that the union had conducted in the period after the election to keep energy going. The Ten Point Plan was an effective answer to the question posed by workers to union organizers: “What does the union want?” For the next several months, the union would organize for elements of the Ten Point Plan, pushing particularly around the lack of a reasonable sick day policy at the company.

Both the NLRB election and the Ten Point Plan raised questions of who is able to speak authoritatively about work and of who is allowed to make political decisions about the workplace. The election and the Ten Point Plan are two different attempts to answer the question “What does the union want?” and also the question “Who has the power to decide how we are treated?” I call these questions of legitimacy. In the IWW, we often struggle with ways of putting forward a clear program for what victory and power might look like in ways that seem reasonable to us and our coworkers. Obviously, we all want a world of economic democracy and justice at the workplace and beyond, where workers have all the power and bosses no longer exist, but that is a fight that is still far off, and only some of us in our class actually believe this is something more than a pipedream. What we and our coworkers want today in our workplaces and how we intend to make sure the bosses respect those demands is a more open question. Part of this is because our union believes that workers ourselves should directly run our union and should directly take action to contest our boss’s power on the job. Many unions are content to make an agreement with management in the form of a contract that clearly states what power the union has to decide how we are treated (usually very little) and what power the boss has (usually quite a lot). In the IWW, we want to chart a course of direct control over workplace conditions, but that course is very murky because there simply are not a lot of other workers’ organizations trying for that.

Who gets to call the shots at work? Who decides how work is done, how it is compensated, who does what work and when? Marx and others have argued persuasively that capitalists have something of a dictatorship over the way work happens. When we walk into most workplaces, the boss tells us what to do, how to do it, and if we disagree we can be disciplined or fired. Workplaces, unlike most parts of our world, generally have zero say in how they are managed by the people who make up the majority of those there, the workers. Other voices, particularly from radical labor activists, have argued that while that may be true on a formal, legal level, in reality workers have a good deal to say about how work gets done through informal organizing. There’s a level at which we acknowledge that the boss makes all the decisions about how to do work, but there is another level in which we informally organize ourselves to make work less miserable: divide tasks up differently, rotate responsibilities, goof off, do just enough work to get not get disciplined, etc.

While these informal practices are important and are often seized upon by good organizers as ways of explaining to our coworkers the ways in which we already have some autonomy at work, they exist below the radar. We may not realize that they are happening or consciously note that they happen. That is to say, they are real but not political. We engage in these practices unintentionally and while they make work better, they do not fundamentally challenge the fact that at the end of the day, it is the boss who calls all the shots. These informal practices rarely have an organized, above-ground component. They resist the way that the boss makes decisions, but they’re more like friction that predictably occurs while the bosses get their way. They do not challenge the boss’s right to make decisions by suggesting an alternative.

Union organizing that acknowledges these informal resistance strategies and the relationships that already exist between coworkers pushes us towards formal strategizing and decision-making through group conversation and collective action. When we start organizing our coworkers for a better life and more power on the job, we begin to engage head on with the power of the boss to control work and the way our lives are affected by work. Most unions are content to challenge that power, sometimes militantly and sometimes not, and then seize a small piece of the power away from the boss. Those unions then attempt to hold on to that piece of power to make decisions through a reasonably formal process of contract negotiations. Sometimes the process of defending that power or expanding it takes on forms that are exciting or lead by the workers, like militant action at work. Other times the process of defending that power takes place far away from rank-and-file workers, by union officials meeting in conference rooms with little oversight by the people who do the work at the company. So most of the time, business union organizing takes a piece of the boss’s power but rather than allowing the workers to hold that power, the union and its officialdom controls it. The workplace is fundamentally changed because now two actors at work can make decisions about work, the boss and the business union.

In the IWW we seek to do more than fight and defend a small piece of the pie every few years during contract negotiations and institutionalize the power we carve off from the boss in the hands of union officials or staffers. We want to set up a situation where whatever demands and issues at work that our coworkers want to raise can be acted upon. To accomplish this, we emphasize the power of direct action, of workers directly taking our own decisions over the kinds of tactics that we employ whenever we want to, in order to achieve change. Our emphasis is on dividing the power at work between the workers and the boss, with an aim of constantly pushing away at the power of the boss class until we can capture it all.

But in pushing for this strategy of direct action, we sometimes find it difficult to clearly explain what it is that we want instead. It might be much easier to explain to someone that what we want is “a better contract” than what we want is “to be able to do whatever we want whenever we want.” Not only is that outside of almost all workers’ experiences, it is a 100% flip of the way power is normally acted out at work: usually the boss has total control over how things get decided. Demanding as our program that we want that right is a profound challenge to capitalism as a way of thinking and living. Italian revolutionary thinker Antonio Gramsci discusses the way in which the culture and ways of living of a ruling class control the ways in which everyone in that society thinks and lives as “hegemony.” The boss rules our workplace because he or she owns the workplace and the labor that we sell to them in exchange for wages. Because of that, the boss’s ideas about how to rule quickly can become our ideas. It’s simply harder to visualize a situation in which the power structure would look different and even harder to imagine how to get there given the amount of risk and time involved.

The business union goal of “the contract as the object” of organizing deals with the question of hegemony by taking and defending a piece of the power to set conditions. The business union forces the boss to admit that a certain amount of power belongs to the union in the form of the control. It then fiercely defends the idea that it is the union’s right to control this piece of power. This is often expressed in language like “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” that is to say that it is okay for the boss to set most of the rules but that we should receive a piece of that rule-making power as fair trade for our ability to make the company money. Further, this “fairness” is enforced, to a greater or lesser degree, by the government in the form of the NLRB and the courts. In the capitalist worldview, this is a difficult thing to fight for and business union organizing is not easy. But it is definitely a reasonable one. “Fairness” as a goal is typically associated with liberal capitalist ideology, and is something that we can easily understand as a good. The IWW’s goal of direct action-based unionism, or solidarity unionism, puts the question of power in much starker relief: who has authority at work, us or the boss? While we may use the language of fairness in our organizing, we are ultimately struggling over power, the power to decide whether our lives are miserable or whether they are decent, which is a much larger question of power than can be embodied in a traditional contract.

We need to think more about how our organizing model also implies a struggle between worldviews and against a hegemonic idea of what work should feel like for working people. Here I think it is useful to return to the story I began with, about the Jimmy John’s workers and their struggle. They initially decided to pursue an NLRB election as a way of asserting their legitimacy in the workplace. “We are legitimate here because we voted in a government-sponsored election and we deserve a piece of the pie.” I think this had less to do with ideology than it did with how people felt about legitimacy at the time and their concerns about finding ways of asserting legitimacy in the face of a vicious anti-union campaign from management. By pursuing an NLRB election, the Jimmy John’s union became able to legitimately speak authoritatively about work. It became allowed to make political decisions about the workplace because it was engaging with a governmental process that appeared legitimate to workers. When the election tactic failed due to company interference, the organizers struck upon a different, and I think far more powerful, way of asserting the union’s legitimacy at work. “We are legitimate because we represent the need to change these issues at work, which we and our coworkers agree that we want to change.” The Ten Point Plan was not framed as an agreement with management but a demand upon management by the workers collectively. It opened a space where the union could assert that it wanted a piece of the pie without saying exactly how much it wanted and implying quite openly that it could demand more if it wanted to. Suddenly the whole question of who should run the company was in question. Workers were fighting for “fairness” but they were not willing to say exactly where “fairness” ended and “control” began. This intensity was compounded by a series of direct actions taken by workers in the aftermath of the election around the sick day policy, upping the pressure on management to the point where it blatantly illegally fired six lead organizers and effectively killed much of the momentum of the original campaign. Differing ways to achieving legitimacy were in play during different periods of the campaign.

Legitimacy is not an academic concern for union organizing. When we approach our coworkers and gauge their interest in organizing, we are forced to give examples of what a union might look like. Workers are not stupid, we want to align with winning faction in a dispute, because there are serious costs to losing and people know that. Talking about standing up to the boss is terrifying to people and as organizers we help our coworkers by talking about their fears and talking them through them. Often these fears come back to concerns about whether or not we can win and whether or not winning will involve personal risk. In giving examples about what the union we want to see will look like, as organizers we set the limits for what the union means and the limits to how big a piece of the pie we seek. Most workers are not ready to hear “we want the whole thing tomorrow!” right off the bat, and even if we want that the fact is that we won’t win everything tomorrow, so as organizers we make choices about explaining how much power we think the union is fighting for and over what kind of timeframe. When we do this, I think we sometimes narrowly define the union’s end goal in terms of a “fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” but with red flags. By that I mean that we fear what our coworkers might think about the full implications of telling them that we want to control all the power at work, because of a long-standing belief amongst leftists that anti-capitalism is alien to working class consciousness, but yet we organize in a union that is formally opposed to capitalism. This false or incomplete version of our vision can make us seem illegitimate. Our ideas may not seem clear or worked out to our co-workers, whereas the bosses’ ideology is already experienced every day on the job.

This fear of bringing in “the politics” often gets expressed as the idea, “I don’t want to scare my coworkers.” It doesn’t help that a lot of us who are comfortable with this vision developed that comfort in relatively small and insular circles of radicals, and picked up the habit of expressing this vision using specialist jargon that is hard to understand for non-specialists. It’s true that the bosses’ hegemony at work makes anti-capitalism unpopular or less popular amongst workers, but we have to remember that people are not inherently for or against any idea, and rather that their experiences help create their ideas. As many organizers have attested, we have often seen that in struggling against the boss at work, conversations about anti-capitalism become much easier. This is in part because struggle builds relationships of trust so that frank discussions about our core values are easier to have. It’s also because through standing together against the boss we begin to see the boss’s hegemony as more of an ideological accompaniment to their power, the very power we should struggle to take back. It is in this process of struggling that we are able to more clearly articulate a vision of what it is we want. When the stakes are high, we can pierce the disempowering vision of the boss’s dictatorship through taking action and this can, in turn flip the accompanying ideas about who does or should control the workplace upside down.

I do not believe that most workers are ready to hear “we want the whole thing tomorrow!” precisely because the bosses’ hegemony at work makes those ideas difficult to entertain from the outset of organizing. But that does not mean we should disavow or downplay those elements of our ideas, because they are an important part of our organizing model. We do not want traditional trade unionism with red flags. I would push us to frame the discussion around what the union is and what the union wants as a positive statement, “We want a fair days wage,” but additionally as “We also want everything.” We want to win the first on our way to winning the second. I think rather than weakening IWW organizing, setting the goal of fighting for all the power, of overturning capitalist hegemony, gives clarity and legitimacy to our own efforts. If we want to offer an alternative to achieving legitimacy through government-sponsored elections, which reinforce the powers of groups of people outside the workplace over workers, we need to offer it boldly and with its own vision. The NLRB process of elections depends on workers’ belief that through elections they can challenge the power of the boss. It also relies on the belief that the capitalist U.S. government is a legitimate entity. As most experience in the past 50 or so years of the U.S. labor movement shows, the power to be gained via the NLRB is limited at best and even in its success it does not do what we as IWW organizers want to accomplish. So we must be convincing in a vision of an alternate legitimacy wrought through own power, or else workers will always fall back to visions with which they are most familiar. To put it another way, on our way to seizing all workplaces and taking them into worker control in order to remake society, we need to take and hold the means of producing legitimacy.

If we hold our organizing to only fighting over specific issues, whether through a contract or through direct action at work, we hold ourselves back from dealing with the larger question of legitimacy and often hamstring our own organizing. When we tell people that we only want a “fair day’s wage,” they will be understandably surprised and unsupportive when we start fighting for things that they may perceive as being not related to that fair day’s wage. After all, we have given them a framework set the limits of our battle for legitimacy. I do not want to sound utopian: under the current balance of forces in North America, I do not expect to actually achieve workers’ hegemony in many or any workplaces for very long for a very long time. But what I have seen concretely at Jimmy John’s and in other important IWW drives is the development of a different vision of legitimacy within and around the union. When we tell people that we want to fight against the power of the boss and overturn that power, partially at first and, eventually, fully, and then we commit ourselves to doing work to make that happen, people believe us. And they start to believe that taking away the bosses’ power is a realistic goal. The legitimacy of the union springs from struggling together, from the relationships that grow from struggle, and from showing that the union and our vision is just as viable a thing to believe in as the boss and their vision. If we can show workers that our organizing can make their lives better, or at least give them powerful emotional experiences associated with trying to make their lives better, it is reasonable for them to believe other things that we say, like that we are fighting for the whole pie. Workers in struggle can therefore produce our own legitimacy and share it with our coworkers, contesting the boss’s hegemony and showing people that, as the old song goes, we shall create a new society “from the ashes of the old.”

Originally posted: September 25, 2012 at Recomposition