A response by a member of the Seattle-based Black Orchid Collective to 'Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper'
This is a response to a piece written by IWW members, entitled “Direct Unionism: A Discussion Paper.“
I really enjoyed reading the piece. Thanks to those who put in the time to present your ideas in such a concise and accessible way. I am new to the IWW and it was in the process of struggling on my job that I came to know more about the organization and people involved. I am a nursing assistant (CNA) in a nursing home and last year, my coworkers and I organized against staffing cuts in a non-unionized, authoritarian, anti-immigrant workplace . The knowledge and skills that IWW members offered to me had been very valuable during my organizing.
My questions with the piece relate mainly to what it takes to build the network of militants across a particular industry that the piece proposes. My organizing experience shows me the importance of it. One of the main obstacles in my organizing, is the small shop mentality. We are a small nursing home in a large industry that has no standardized working conditions. Even when our staffing ratio went from 8 residents/CNA to 10-12 residents/CNA, we were told that we are lucky not to have 16 residents or more. We are highly expendable as low skilled workers, and the bosses use that against us. It is hard to put economic pressure on a nursing home where funding is a myriad of bureaucracy- with Medicaid, Medicare, hospital connections etc. As I reflect on how to counter the demoralization related to this small shop mentality, I think it is crucial that we build a network of CNAs across different workplaces and get at the issues of standardizing staffing ratios for the nursing home industry.
Another obstacle to my organizing was the role and rhetoric of the state. Nursing home and healthcare broadly is an industry that has been highly politicized. Anti-labor and mainstream media, in efforts to justify their conservative agenda, flippantly portray unionized workers, or workers who struggle for better working conditions ,as greedy and uncompassionate people. Where neglect of residents arise from staffing ratios and working conditions of healthcare providers, mainstream media is always more comfortable with highlighting the personal failings and character of workers, rather than also holding employers and funding losses responsible. What this results in, is the ability for the state to play the role of mediating for the rights of our residents, people with disabilities and the elderly. In their frequent state visits, they come and follow us, checking items off of their checklist. When we are unable to satisfy the tasks because of the staffing ratios (because we are short staffed), we are instead individually held responsible and written up for neglect and abuse as the management saw fit under the loose state definitions, or threatened with the loss of our licenses. For workers in an already expendable, low skilled industry, that clean record is super important.
My point in raising this is to say that to win, we need also to challenge the political narratives of the state, debate in the broader ideas about what health, care and disabilities justice means — We won’t be able to win in our little shops, in our expendable jobs, through class struggle narrative alone, on the basis that we are workers. We dont produce lifeless products, which we can abandon at will through class unity. As healthcare workers, our care for our patients and residents play into how we struggle, and how our struggle is perceived. The reason why the liberal state succeeds is because it is able to present itself as the spokesperson for the well-being of elderly people and people with disabilities in healthcare settings. We, the workers, need to break down that state monopoly and claim that role alongside our patients and their families. This is a struggle that is beyond the workplace. It is a battle against the state in the realm of ideas and analysis about healthcare, disabilities justice and the like, questions that cannot simply be answered by direct action on the job, but require study, conversation, debate, discussion etc. In the proposal for industrial strategies that the piece proposes, is there space for such a task? If so, what does it require out of the IWW, and how do we do it? If not, how come?
Furthermore, despite my political critiques of service unions, I have at the same time been very impressed with the resources they put into research (granted, it’s after they’ve done their cost benefit analysis and decide who’s “worth” organizing/researching based on how due-worthy they are). Whether it is toward lining up contracts to expire at the same time, or to strategize around who is the main target to publicize around nation wide, or to coordinate struggles across cities, the bourgeois institutions around us take this sort of national strategy into consideration. I am curious to know how an industrial strategy with IWW politics takes this need into consideration. Is national strategizing and coordination important and if so, how has it been/can it be put into practice? What level of strategizing and coordination for what level of struggle? Given that such tasks take time and energy, are there ways to support members to take on such roles? I think organizational/structural/formal support for such roles are important to avoid a scenario where it would mostly be young white, single male with relatively more resources and time, who take them on.
I value that the article emphasizes the need to be an anti-capitalist organization, as reflected in the preamble. However, there is also a mystifying of what anti-capitalist politics mean in the process of struggle. I hope this gets flushed out more.
One issue that is confusing to me, is the conflation I see in the article between non-contractualism and anti-capitalist politics in the preamble. I think the way the piece presents what anti-capitalist politics is, is slightly hazy — it makes it seem like we will do our labor organizing, organizing shop by shop, through direct action, until a big break happens.
I think it is less necessary to explicitly spell out the anti-capitalist politics of the historical IWW, than it is to clarify a method for how anti-capitalist workplace struggle looks like in practice, in the demands we articulate, and the way we achieve those demands.How do we organize in a way that over the long run, prepares for a qualitative shift from a capitalist mode of production that heralds in the process of communism, one that is not a transitional state that is organized by bureaucrats? This qualitative shift is a process that involves changing capitalist social relations. Even though this process can only take place during revolution, we need to agitate around it now in the demands that we fight for. Our demands should be directed not only at the necessity of better working conditions and wages, but also at breaking down the division between mental and manual labor, between gendered and racial divisions at the workplace, etc. I believe that some people in the IWW are already doing this on their jobs, but it would be helpful to have it be clarified and explicit.
Another question I have, is the role of the unemployed in relation to the IWW. As we all know, the high unemployment rate in the US right now reflects deeper racial divisions and segregation. A strategy for the working class needs also to include the demands of the unemployed, not simply for political reasons, but also for practical reasons. The precarious, low waged jobs that many of us are in means that our lifestyles and prospects are not that far from those who are unemployed. The strategies laid out in the STO’s Workplace Papers articulate the importance of “independent workplace groups” that connect the workplace struggle to community struggles. I have been very influenced by those writings in my past organizing and see that organizational form as important for us to be able to make class struggle a bridging point for waged workers and the unemployed. At the same time, we need to update those writings with contemporary practice and theory. In building the leadership and consciousness of workers, how do the writers of Direct Unionism think through the relationship between precarious workers and the unemployed?
I raise these questions in good faith. I’m really thankful and excited that people are putting out writings such as the Direct Unionism piece and that there is a space for such conversations.
Taken from Black Orchid Collective's blog. (Originally posted August 11, 2011)