The labor movement in the United States has been crumbling for decades. In 2012, the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union was just 11.3%— or 14.4 million workers (US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012). This is down considerably from the peak of union density in 1955 at approximately 34% (Levi, Olson and Kelly 2009). Unions in the United States have but a shadow of their former strength, and the overwhelming majority of workers in the United States are unorganized. Few Americans would describe themselves first and foremost as workers anymore and the culture of solidarity that once fueled the American labor movement has all but disappeared. The unabated decline of unions over the past fifty years represents an unequivocal triumph for capital over labor and begs the questions: are unions in the United States going extinct? Might organized labor cease to be a significant social force in the United States forever?
The Seattle Solidarity Network exists to defy these possibilities. Their members wonder instead: might the United States see a resurgence of the popular labor and social movements of the first half of the twentieth century in the twenty first? Could the labor movement become powerful enough to once again be a significant social force in American politics?
The winter of 2011 was an interesting time to examine SeaSol as well as to consider the future of working-class social movements in the United States at large. In Renton, Washington, SeaSol was in the midst a bitter campaign against a small Italian restaurant in an effort to recover a waitress’ unpaid wages. At the same time, in Madison, Wisconsin, a Republican governor was trying to push through legislation intended to destroy public sector unions in the State while tens of thousands of people protested at the Capitol building. The stark contrast between the all but unknown conflict SeaSol was having in Renton and the much-publicized protests in Wisconsin at nearly the same time can be seen as parallel harbingers of two very different futures for working-class social movements in the United States: extinction or rejuvenation. The juxtaposition of these two specific events provides a useful starting point for understanding how SeaSol’s approach differs from that of the mainstream political Left in the United States.
The Future From Madison
On February 11th, 2011, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin introduced a new “budget repair bill” designed to strip Wisconsin’s 283,351 public employees (WTA 2011) of their collective bargaining rights and greatly weaken public sector unions in the state. The proposed bill was designed to eliminate the automatic deduction of union dues from union employee’s pay and mandatory union membership, limit labor contracts to one year, remove the right to collective bargaining entirely in some industries while strictly limiting it in others, and require public unions to run a campaign to be successfully recertified in a National Labor Relations Board election every year (State Legislature of Wisconsin 2011).
The proposed bill was a litmus test for the strength of public sector unions across the nation as much of the country watched and waited with bated breath to see what would happen in Wisconsin. Despite the number of workers involved, Governor Walker and the Republican Party seemingly felt confident that the unions and their allies would be unable to successfully stop the bill from becoming law. The rest of February was high on drama as Wisconsin’s public sector unions and their supporters struggled to prevent the bill from becoming law. Thousands of protesters occupied the Capitol Rotunda in Madison a day and night sit in demanding that the bill be scrapped. Wisconsin’s Democratic state lawmakers physically fled to Illinois in order to prevent the state senate from having the necessary quorum to vote on the bill, and a variety of private and public unions organized solidarity rallies at every state capital in the country (Bauer 2011, Haas 2011, Ramirez 2011).
The large public demonstrations were presumably designed to bring political pressure to bear on Governor Walker and the Republican Party. Perhaps by publicly shaming them in the national spotlight and in enough numbers the protesters hoped to fill Walker and the Republicans with enough fear for their own future careers that they would decide to back down. The problem with this strategy was that while it made good television, it gave the protestors no real leverage. After seventeen days a County Circuit Judge ordered protestors in Madison to vacate the capitol building overnight on March 4, and protestors complied without serious resistance (MSNBC 2011). Unions and their supporters continued to protest en mass in Wisconsin and across the nation, but eventually, even as Wisconsin’s Democrats continued to refuse to return to the State House, the Republican Senate passed the measure on March 9 (Davey 2011). Despite Democratic lawmakers insistence that the vote was illegal under the Senates’ rules regarding necessary quorum, Governor Walker signed the bill into law on March 11(Bauer 2011).
On June 14 the Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruled that the Republican vote to pass the bill was legal (Mayers 2011). As a result, public sector unions across the country may soon be faced with similar measures—possibly marking another step towards the complete extinction of unions as a serous social force in the United States. Democratic lawmakers and union leaders promised legal challenges and a recall election of Governor Walker and other Republican politicians in order to block or reverse the measure, but approximately one year later Governor Walker won a recall election in June of 2012 and kept his job. In the wake of this disaster for organized labor, Wisconsin’s protesters and their sympathizers across the nation have been left wondering: is there anything else they could have done?
There is at least one compelling answer to this question: the unions and their supporters could have used sustained direct action tactics to put pressure on Governor Walker. The public demonstrations were certainly somewhat embarrassing and inconvenient for Wisconsin’s Republicans, but strike action on the part of Wisconsin’s public unions could have literally brought the state to a standstill. This would have placed considerable pressure on Governor Walker to resolve the situation and possibly would have caused him to negotiate. In mid-February, teachers from across the State called in “sick” to attend protests at the Capitol building in a brash wildcat strike. In Madison, forty percent of the districts teachers phoned in the sick, causing the entire school district to cancel classes (DeFour 2011). However, union leaders moved quickly to stop the strikes. The Madison Teacher’s union, Madison Teacher’s Inc (MTI), The Milwaukee Teacher’s Association, and the State’s largest teacher’s union, the Wisconsin Education Council Association (WEAC) consistently issued statements urging union workers to continue to report for work and reassuring them that they had the situation well in hand (Bell 2011, WISC-TV 2011). Union leaders made it clear that determining appropriate strategies for resisting the bill was their purview.
Groups of angry workers and radicals from within and without the public sector unions, including the Madison branch of the IWW, relentlessly called for at least a oneday general strike to resist the measure, but their calls have been consistently ignored by union leaders. With the public sector union leadership unwilling to actively call for it, a strike of any kind was simply untenable. Instead, union leaders successfully funneled popular anger into more passive modes of resistance. They urged supporters to sign petitions outside the capitol and flew in speakers from across the country to condemn Republicans and extol the Democrats. The Reverend Jesse Jackson told protestors in Madison: “we have a great president. But he cannot do it alone. When we do not fight, we weaken him. We do not vote… if we had used our power to vote, we would not have Mr. Walker as Governor tonight.” He then stopped to lead the crowd in a chant: “when we vote, we win! When we vote, we win! (Wisconsin Reporter 2011)” Powerful progressive leaders in Wisconsin were in complete agreement that Governor Walker’s bill should be dealt with using only the proper channels—meaning legal and electoral processes.
Even when faced with a bill that was designed to crush them into dust, public sector unions and other progressive organizations in Wisconsin failed to take effective or creative action to stop the measure. Instead, they utilized the same tired strategies the Left has been relying on for decades: public demonstrations, legal challenges, and continued support of the Democratic Party. At the same time, divergent strategies were proactively suppressed as union members were urged to remain at work. These traditional approaches failed to stop the budget repair bill from being passed in Wisconsin and they have failed to slow the general decline of unions at large across the country.
Modern unions are unrecognizable when compared to many unions in the first half of the 20th century. The greatest power unions have is the power of workers to take action on the job that directly disrupts business, yet unions fail to utilize this power time and time again. In its place, America’s unions continue to languish in a willful state of institutional bondage. As the most historically significant form of working-class social movement, the obvious impotency of unions as demonstrated in Wisconsin has grim implications for the future. The reasons public sector unions did not bring actual material pressure to bear on Wisconsin Republicans speaks volumes about organized labor in the United States today.
First and foremost, it is illegal for public sector unions in Wisconsin to go on strike. The State has the legal right in Wisconsin to fire any public sector worker who goes on strike. Union leaders on the other hand would face heavy fines and possibly even imprisonment if they organized a strike. Secondly, to operate outside of the law is entirely outside the paradigm of contemporary unionism in this country. For over fifty years unionism in both the private and the public sectors has primarily meant a small group of union lawyers and bureaucrats negotiating under a contract system. Actual on the job action (such as slow-downs, sit-downs, sick-outs, and strikes) is almost always forbidden under contract. “Industrial action,” as it is called, is primarily used only between contracts and usually only as a symbolic gesture to give union leaders better posture at the bargaining table.
The overwhelming emphasis on grievance procedure and legal contracts has worked to foster a passive relationship between union members and their unions. This transformation has greatly decreased the power of unions. Workers and unions in the United States have all but forgotten how to fight for improvements in their working conditions on the shop floor rather than in courts and conference rooms. Modern unions are unrecognizable when compared to many unions in the first half of the 20th century. As unionism has become less participatory and increasingly executive, unions’ have generally not been able to mobilize the popular support necessary to stop corporate offensives at the bargaining table or in Congress.
The roots of this transformation can be traced to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935. The early 1930s and 1940s was a period of almost open class conflict in the United States. American workers were fed up with the economic hardship and dislocation wrought by the Great Depression and business’ efforts to mitigate the crisis by speeding up work and lowering pay. At the same time US employers were still violently opposed to recognizing the legitimacy of unions and did not want to cede an inch to American workers unless they had no other choice. In 1934 a massive strike wave swept the nation. There were general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. In the same year militant dockworkers in the International Longshoreman Workers Union shut down every major port on the West Coast and 800,000 textile workers went on strike across the South (Bernstein, 1970). Union membership continued to climb steadily during this time and strikes became increasingly common. It was this sort of labor unrest that eventually prompted the passage of the NLRA.
The NLRA was a reformist piece of legislation that contained many important provisions favoring labor. The NLRA recognized unions’ right to exist as well as the right to strike, guaranteed collective bargaining, outlawed company unions, and established a national Labor Board to resolve worker’s complaints. However, businesses were slow to accept the act and the labor unrest continued. Despite a wartime no-strike pledge from many prominent labor leaders, workers continued to go on strike throughout WWII. There was another series of strikes between 1945-1947 including hundreds of thousands of workers in a wildcat strike movement. Additionally, there were post-war general strikes in Oakland, Lancaster, Stamford, and Akron (Lichtenstein, 1982). After almost twenty years of especially widespread and bitter strike action business finally decided it was in its best interests to negotiate with rather than try to crush labor unions— at least for the time being.
By the end of the 1940s the conflict between capital and labor increasingly moved off of the shop floor and out of the streets. The bargaining table became the new battleground and the NLRA began to define the nature of labor relations in the United States. Although widely viewed as a favorable piece of legislation for organized labor, the NLRA has turned out to be a Trojan horse for American business interests. The nature of the new system of labor contracts and other laws mandated by the NLRA had a number of serious consequences that have greatly contributed to a transformation of the nation’s unions. Contracts were typically negotiated every few years by a handful of union leaders, while union members increasingly became passive observers outside of elections. Even worse, social issues outside of working conditions at specific firms were suddenly considered outside of union jurisdiction— sympathy strikes became illegal. In short, any sort of class-based political action was forbidden under the new set of laws:
“Bargaining, however, meant a regime of contractual legalism, in which unions have become the guarantors of continued production rather than being the champions of their members’ distress. Their guaranty position is ensured by sanctions—union officials face heavy fines and even jail time for failure to stay within the bounds of industrial legality. Strikes became prohibited except at the end of contracts, while slow-downs, sit-downs, wildcats, and sympathy strikes (the sorts of activity which best epitomize worker class solidarity) remain illegal. Grievances are to be resolved through legalistic grievance procedures, not by job actions on the floor, not by shop stewards persistently attempting to win every shop floor disagreement— and most worker complaints no longer receive any solution at all. Unions ceded to management total control of production, confining themselves to narrow economic issues. (Holt, 2007)”
Unions have since been allowed to advocate for improved working conditions only in certain ways and at certain times. The very type of solidarity that had helped to force the passage of the NLRA in the form of general strikes began to die out as it had become illegal and was therefore frowned upon by union bosses. With just a few union bosses doing most of the bargaining, Americans had less reason to identify as workers. The role of the union member under the new system was to pay dues and elect leaders, not to organize on the job. The strength of union bureaucracies simultaneously increased with the day-to-day organization of the union increasingly falling to paid union staff rather than regular workers. Attendance at union meetings began to dwindle, but union rules regarding dues-check off ensured that union hierarchies maintained adequate funds. As a result of these changes in culture and organization, unions essentially became an institutionalized special interest group.
In light of this reality workers have little reason to place their time, energy, or hopes in America’s unions. According to the 2012 Gallup poll 52% of Americans still approve of labor unions, but this slim majority is the second lowest approval rating for unions that Gallup has ever recorded (Jones). This low approval rating is especially stark when compared to the 72% approval rating Gallup reported in 1936 when the polling agency first asked the question (Jones, 2010). The bureaucratic nature and narrow focus of American unions has resulted not only in a failure to organize new workers on the job but has also contributed to this significant drop in public support over the years. America’s unions continue to display a startling lack of creativity that leaves them in a state of institutional bondage.
It is clear that if the working-class are to improve their lives in the 21st century they are going to have to implement new and more effective strategies that will likely challenge the status quo. In Wisconsin, people were plainly unable to do this. Fringe organizations calling for a general strike did not actually command enough popular support to organize such a strike without the support of the mainstream unions’ leadership. Like so many radicals across the nation often do, advocates of a general strike in Wisconsin were probably setting their sights to high. The militant working-class organizations that would be necessary to carry out a successful general strike will not be built over night. In contrast, SeaSol offers a practical method for slowly building up the broad base of support that would be necessary to supplant dominant institution’s present monopoly on paradigms surrounding social change. By only taking on small issues they can handle without outside support, SeaSol is trying to gain traction in the margins.
The Future From Renton
On January 19, 2011, I attended SeaSol’s last picket outside of Bella Napoli restaurant in Renton, a suburb just south of Seattle. SeaSol was picketing the restaurant because its owner, Ciro Donofrio, had fired a waitress we will call Ramona and was now refusing to pay her for her last month of work. Ramona describes what happened to her in an article on SeaSol’s website:
“For the entire month of September I worked for Ciro Donofrio at his Italian Restaurant in Renton, Bella Napoli. During this time, Ciro was verbally abusive towards his employees and even customers. He would throw temper tantrums in front of tables and claim we were out of things on the menu simply because he did not feel like making them. He would also hire different people to come in and help out on a weekend night with no prior experience and without training. This proved to be difficult, as I was the only server, bartender, hostess, food runner, and busser. I still had to pay rent so I continued to work for Ciro. Things got hairy when I had $110 of my bank "disappeared" one night when only he and I were working. Also, I needed my check and Ciro claimed that he only paid his employees at the end of every month. I thought this was strange, especially after I had seen him give a check to the cook, but I dismissed it. What was he going to do, not pay me? (The Seattle Solidarity Network, 2011)”
Refusing to pay her was exactly what Donofrio ended up doing after Ramona quit. Ramona repeatedly asked him when she was going be paid and he continued to make excuses until finally admitting that he had no actual intention of paying her. Ramona decided to file a claim against Donofrio with the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I), but quickly became frustrated with the slow and impersonal nature of the process. As a result, when Ramona’s friend told her about a poster she had seen promoting SeaSol, Ramona decided to contact the organization.
After meeting with two SeaSol organizers she decided to join SeaSol. The group quickly voted at their next weekly meeting to initiate a direct action campaign against Donofrio. On November 17, forty SeaSol supporters marched into Bella Napoli with Ramona and delivered a letter to Donofrio telling him that he had 14 days to pay her the wages he owed before they would take further action. When he failed to pay Ramona’s wages after two weeks, SeaSol began an escalating campaign of public actions designed to compel him to pay. For two and a half months SeaSol distributed fliers, put up posters, and picketed Donofrio and his restaurant.
I had the opportunity to participate in one of SeaSol’s pickets of the restaurant on a cold and wet Friday night in January. I was surprised that roughly thirty people showed up for the evening picket despite the weather and the fact that the restaurant was a twenty-minute drive from Seattle. We paraded up and down the sidewalk in front of the restaurant carrying signs and chanting, “Work for Ciro, get paid zero!” while he eyed us angrily from inside his empty restaurant. After about half an hour, as it became obvious that no one was going to cross the picket line that night, Donofrio decided to close his restaurant for the night. After making sure that it was not some sort of trick, most of the people at the picket headed to a nearby Irish pub to celebrate the fact that Donofrio would get no more business that night. As it turned out, it would only be one more week before Donofrio closed his restaurant permanently.
In the week following the January 19 picket, Donofrio ended up spending a night in jail for confronting a group of SeaSol members putting up posters in his neighborhood and slapping one of them in the face. The campaign also received some public exposure on KCBS 90.3 FM’s, “One World Report,” and on the following Friday a SeaSol member who lived in Renton reported that Bella Napoli was entirely empty except for a few pieces of trash and a push broom. Ramona and the rest of SeaSol were ecstatic: Donofrio had refused to pay Ramona her wages, but his stubbornness had come at the expense of his restaurant. Ramona and the rest of SeaSol felt that successfully putting a permanent end to the abuse Donofrio was carrying out at his restaurant was worth more than Ramona’s $478.
The fight was a milestone for SeaSol in many ways. Firstly, SeaSol had its largest picket ever at that time, with fifty supporters showing up at one point during the campaign to picket Bella Napoli (SeaSol’s has since held one picket with nearly one hundred supporters). Secondly, SeaSol had been put in a situation where an unusually stubborn boss was simply refusing to pay the few hundred dollars he owed despite the fact that SeaSol’s pickets were costing him thousands of dollars in lost business. For the first time, SeaSol had the strength and numbers to force an employer to choose between paying what he owed or closing the doors of his business permanently. By absolutely refusing to pay Ramona’s wages even though SeaSol’s campaign was costing him far more than the meager $478 he owed, Donofrio put SeaSol’s resolve to the test—and SeaSol won. The amount of money at stake was small and the number of people involved was nothing compared to the tens of thousands who were protesting in Wisconsin at about the same time. However, despite the insignificance of the campaign on a grand scale, SeaSol’s victory in Renton clearly demonstrated the organization’s growing power.
Ramona did eventually receive a check through the Department of Labor and Industries for approximately half of the amount she was actually owed, but when she attempted to cash it the check bounced. Ramona remained unclear as to exactly why this was, but she said that after speaking with L&I it seemed to have something to do with the fact that L&I had not actually secured payment from Donofrio before issuing the check. SeaSol was also unable to secure payment from Donofrio, but when asked if she would remain involved in SeaSol anyway Ramona said:
“Definitely. It’s just the justice, it’s just seeing a group of people stand beside you and support you and tell you it’s ok, I’ve been through this, it’ll get better and we’ll stand up to them and they won’t win.”
SeaSol’s support meant more to Ramona than her $478. The sort of success SeaSol experienced in Ramona’s campaign, small though it may be, proved that organized members of the working-class are capable of identifying and defeating their own enemies without legal or professional assistance. Of course, very few people knew about SeaSol’s activities that winter. Instead, if they followed the news, most Americans were probably left with quite the opposite impression about working-class social movements after watching events unfold in Wisconsin that winter and spring. The following sections will explore in greater depth what exactly SeaSol’s method consists of, how well it works in practice, and if this organization could actually foretell a brighter future for working-class social movements.
A New Kind of Labor Organization
SeaSol’s members come together as equals from across workplaces and neighborhoods to resolve small scale job-related and housing issues using only their own power and imagination– “no lawyers, no paid staff, just regular working people defending each other through collective action (The Seattle Solidarity Network, 2010).” This is a novel model for organizing workers and tenants because SeaSol members do not necessarily work for the same employer or live in the same building. Instead, SeaSol members support each other not just because it may be in their own interest, but also because they want to support other people in the network. In the absence of strong workers or tenants unions, SeaSol members try to defend each other when an employer or landlord abuses any given member of the network.
In order to build the network until it gets large enough, SeaSol members put up posters on telephone poles and lampposts across Seattle in order to find people who are having problems with their boss or landlord and might be interested in joining the organization. When someone contacts SeaSol with a problem, a few members of SeaSol meet with that individual to hear his or her story, explain how SeaSol might be able to help, and ask if they would be willing to join the network. After some serious deliberation and discussion at SeaSol’s weekly meeting, the group votes on whether or not SeaSol should take on the “fight.” If the group decides to take on the fight, then every step of the planning is carried out at their weekly meetings and they rely entirely on their own limited funds to cover any costs that may arise. Once SeaSol has voted to take on a fight, they invite the individual to their next meeting and begin planning a public campaign designed to force the employer or landlord to meet a specific demand by using escalating amounts of social and economic pressure. SeaSol is directly democratic, has no central authority, and no regular source of funding aside from small individual donations.
SeaSol’s internal organization and the tactics its members use are completely outside the prevailing paradigm of progressives in the United States because they do not rely on paid staff, grant money, non-profit tax status, lawyers, legal agreements, or lobbying politicians. Instead, SeaSol intentionally takes on struggles that they believe they can win using only their own collective strength and ingenuity. SeaSol’s members care not only about achieving the desired results, but also about doing it in a way that builds people power.
Since its formation, SeaSol has grown steadily and now has approximately 240 people on its phone tree and over seven hundred supporters on its largest email announcement list. SeaSol has successfully used direct action (picketing, posting leaflets, etc.) to resolve roughly thirty-five specific housing and job-related issues. The organization has successfully taken on a variety of workers’ and tenants’ issues including wage theft, landlord neglect, deposit theft, unfair fees, and predatory lawsuits. In order to compel the employer or landlord to meet their demand(s), SeaSol members have undertaken a wide array of tactics including storming into offices en masse, putting up posters telling would- be renters or customers not to do business with the given company, picketing storefronts and public events involving the employer or landlord, passing out fliers at their churches or putting up posters in their neighborhoods.
SeaSol has had enough success in the past several years that it has not only continued to grow in numbers in Seattle, but has also begun attracting the attention of other labor activists across the nation and even internationally. Solidarity networks have begun to emerge across the country since SeaSol’s founding. Every other solidarity network has been started after the Seattle Solidarity Network and as a result of learning about its activities. Presently, there are solidarity networks in the cities of Olympia, Tacoma, Santa Cruz, San Diego, Boston, Providence, New York, Iowa City, and Atlanta. Internationally, people have been inspired by SeaSol’s work to start their own solidarity networks in Canada, Britain, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. However, it is still much too soon to say whether this model will grow into an actual popular movement in the United States or remain simply the obscure past time of a few scattered groups of like-minded radicals.