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Workplace organizational tactics and obstacles

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Sheldon's picture
Sheldon
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May 6 2009 13:37
Workplace organizational tactics and obstacles

Decided to post this in the North America forum, as the legal particularities may be vastly different from those that need to be considered by comrades elsewhere. All input is appreciated though.

I currently work at a buffet restaurant in California, and desire to get my coworkers to organize our own union (or perhaps join and existing one, not sure on the best course of action). I want to form an organization along syndicalist, industrial unionist, lines but there are several obstacles that I find myself confronted with and I'd like to ask for assistance in resolving.

Are there any examples of successful radical unionization in the United States for low-skill, part-time employers? I understand that the IWW recently successfully organized several Starbucks branches. Any other examples that I could research into the tactics of would be immensely helpful. An added crutch to this problem is that the nature of my workplace is that turn-over for half the employees is relatively high, with the remaining workers being there for over 5 years. These latter workers generally stick around because they have familial obligations that necessitate them keeping a job.

The other obstacle is the question of direction. Do we organize with the intent of getting legal recognition and all of the protections and benefits we are afforded under US labor law, which we currently are not given (adequate breaks, overtime pay, etc) or do we proceed to gain recognition and concessions directly from management? The former policy is a bit difficult to swallow for a good portion of my coworkers, since part of my employers strategy is to hire undocumented workers so as to avoid the nit-picky labor protections. I understand my coworkers' hesitation, as an increased US labor law enforcement could lead them to losing their jobs. Have other organizing efforts successfully addressed these concerns, or are there any failures which we could learn from?

I haven't actually begun speaking on questions of unionizing with my coworkers yet, and I think one of the problems in California is the general reception of labor unions is less than compatible for the sort of union I'd like us to form. I've currently restricted a lot of my discussions with them on general workplace conditions, how things could improve and how management is unable to improve those conditions for us. The specific organizational form that the addressing of these grievances will take, the union, will be discussed at a later date.

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Hieronymous
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May 13 2009 20:06

First, you don't need to be an official, legal, NRLB-recognized union to collectively engage in class struggle. Section 7(a) of the National Labor Relations Act allows "collective activity for mutual aid and protection." So I'd suggest that you start talking with all of your co-workers, documented or not, about workplace issues. If you don't speak their languages, find someone to help with translating. And the onus is on you to research the labor law, because they apply to all workers in the country, legal or not. A great place to start is Staughton Lynd's Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law, available online here: Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer, or in book form (it was originally published by Stan Weir as a Singlejack little book, ,then by Charles H. Kerr, and it was just reprinted again by PM Press in Oakland).

Secondly, the original Wobblies used to organize for the goal of class consciousness by fighting and striking for demands, not for recognition. That's where the whole collective bargaining/contractual dogma has erased the class-against-class militancy that once made workplace struggles come from the bottom-up, led and directed by the rank-and-file.

In March of 2008, 7 of 11 of my co-workers at a non-profit San Francisco Adult ESL school launched a indefinite strike for 3 simple demands:

1. Return of our health care, taken away (with a promise of its return when enrollment improved) in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the changeover from INS to Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), now run by Homeland Security. By 2008 the numbers of students enrolled had overwhelmingly exceeded what they were pre-9/11, but management stonewalled on discussing the return of health care; why would they? They cut 30% of our wages and got away with it.

2. A 30% increase in wage, based on the rise in the cost of living and the fact that there had been no cost-of-living wage adjustment in over 12 years.

3. Workplace policies, including a process for airing grievances, put in writing. The school was run totally arbitrarily and teaches often got fired on a whim, so we wanted to negotiate a process where it would be completely clear what management's polices and workplace rules were -- rather than them being dictated by the whim and current emotional state of managers.

After a week on strike, we ended up losing but it nearly destroyed the school. 95% of the 175+ students in the school supported us and stayed out, totally shutting the school down by the end of the week. We had overwhelming community solidarity, so morale on the picket lines remained high all through the strike. Yet at the end of the week, some teachers were so pissed off that management continued to stonewall us, that they quit. This caused a domino effect and with the number of strikers dropping below a plurality, the rest of us had to quit. I was the only one who tried to return to work, only to be told that by NLRB rules, I'd been "replaced" and put on a list and should my replacement leave, I'd be called back to work. Well, 2 or more of my replacements left, but they still didn't call me. I knew they wouldn't, but was able to collect unemployment insurance for over a year, so it worked out O.K. for me.

After the strike the school's enrollment dropped by 25 to 30%, and some of our students had self-organized their own demands during the strike. They demanded that health care be returned to us teachers, higher wages for us, and a healthier school. It was in such disrepair that there were leaks in the roof and mold grew down the interior walls in several places. They demanded that the school live up to its promises for better student services, which were non-existent or poorly organized. At the end of the strike, a core of students who'd be our strongest solidarity supporters organized transfers to other schools en masse.

Also, about 80% of the students at the school worked at low-wage, benefit-less, service industry jobs, not unlike you and your co-workers at the buffet restaurant -- and not unlike increasingly precarious ESL teacher jobs. Most had to do it under-the-table because their I-20 student visas didn't allow them to work. And unlike downtown San Francisco schools that cater to affluent language-student-tourists, the school I was at was out of the way at the far west of the city and it attracted working class students from around the world, many of whom were trying to transfer to community colleges in California to keep their visas alive, with the eventual goal of trying to find some way to get legal status in the U.S. So when the core of us teachers who were organizing knew we might go on strike, we all started teaching about the awful, fully commodified health care system in the U.S. and how they, along with us teachers, were among the 47,000,000 workers in the U.S. without health care. It really must of resonated with them, because they eagerly joined us on the picket line and less than a dozen were scabs and crossed it.

Last night I was checking craigslist.org for jobs and the school has obviously been having retention problems because they're always advertising for jobs. But the hourly pay has been raised $5 an hour, so despite the U.S. economy sliding into a depression, the school has actually raised the wage! So instead of leaving behind a legacy of defeat, at least teachers going to work at that shitty place now have 5 bucks more an hour to ameliorate their misery.

All of this is to demonstrate that you don't have to be in a certified union to organize to fight the boss as a militant working class organization. All you need to do is to start building solidarity.

Drop me a PM if you want a longer written account or want me to send you a 20-minute DVD documentary of our strike.

For the Class War,

Hieronymous

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Sheldon
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May 12 2009 18:59

Thanks for that book! I read through it and found it very informative, do you happen to know of any similar sources that may be more up-to-date (I think that book was 1993)? I checked out the other IWW resources and it all seems like relevant information to what I would like to do. Otherwise, I'll have to check out the developments over the last 15 or so years to make sure what courts precedents are standing currently.

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Hieronymous
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May 13 2009 20:11

The PM Press version came out last year, but I don't know how much was changed. I'm insanely busy these days, but I have both the Charles Kerr (the 1993 online version, I think) and the PM versions and when I have time I'll compare the two.

So you might just have to buy the PM Press version.