RWU Convention solidarity workshop report-back

China to US class composition & schematic of supply chain

On April 5-6, 2018 Railroad Workers United held their biennial convention, just prior and in coordination with the Labor Notes Conference, in Chicago. Supply Chain Study/Research Group facilitated a workshop entitled "Struggles Along Supply Chains: Rail & Cross-Sectoral Solidarity" that modeled possible solidarity actions during a hypothetical strike at an Amazon warehouse. Warehouse worker organizers from SI Cobas in Italy, Angry Workers of the World in the U.K., and Workers Initiative from Poland participated, along with Chicago warehouse workers, Seattle Amazon tech workers, longshore workers from the Pacific Northwest, and a room full of rank-and-file railroaders.

We opened our 80-minute presentation with the quote below about the "Chicago Idea," as well as referring to Brian Ashton’s phrase describing global production today as a “factory without walls." We pointed out how, in the post-Fordist world, class struggle crosses regions, borders and even oceans, requiring new ways of organizing internationally, building class-wide solidarity across crafts and sectors as well.

James Green wrote:
The “Chicago Idea”
The first sign of change came in March 1882, when a group of German tanners struck and demanded a wage equal to that of the more skilled English-speaking curriers. When employers refused the demand and the curriers struck in sympathy with the immigrant tanners, . . . the curriers acted not on the basis of “any grievance of their own, but because of a sentimental and sympathetic feeling for another class of workmen.” The seventy-two-day exercise in solidarity was, according to the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics, . . . an action "conducted on the principle of the Knights of Labor which proclaims that 'an injury to one is the concern of all’.” (from Death in the Haymarket)

We used the following quote by Sergio Bologna about the approach of the IWW, perhaps the best organizational expression of the Chicago Idea:

Sergio Bologna wrote:
The IWW succeeded in creating an absolutely original type of agitator: not the mole digging for decades within the single factory or proletarian neighborhood, but the type of agitator who swims within the stream of proletarian struggles, who moves from one end to the other of the enormous American continent and who rides the seismic wave of the struggle, overcoming national boundaries and sailing the oceans before organizing conventions to found sister organizations. The Wobblies’ concern with transportation workers and longshoremen, their constant determination to strike at capital as an international market, their intuitive understanding of the mobile proletariat – employed today, unemployed tomorrow – as a virus of social insubordination, as the agent of the “social wildcat”: all these things make the IWW a class organization which anticipated present-day forms of struggle (from "Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origins of the Workers’Council Movement,” Telos [1972]).

We gave introductory comments about our previous efforts to bring together a cross-craft coalition of transportation and logistics workers in order to foment "a virus of social insubordination" for the "social wildcat." This was done by mentioning our first Rail Safety Conference in Richmond, California in 2015, (see list of work sectors below), followed by Olympia, Washington, and finally another in 2015 in Chicago.

Roberto Luzzi was invited to read a prepared statement of solidarity for RWU from Wobbly CUB Rail, a group of railroad workers from Italy who also find inspiration in the IWW. He then gave an overview of his group, SI Cobas, which is a “base” or rank-and-file union that organizes with predominately immigrant warehouse workers in northern Italy. Next, KD from Angry Workers of the World talked about organizing in warehouses and readymade food plants in the logistics cluster around Heathrow Airport in West London. After that, A. and M.from Workers Initiative in Poland described their organizing efforts at Amazon warehouses in Poland and the links they’ve made with German warehouse workers.

Then we began our solidarity workshop by detailing sources of workers' power that we borrow from Beverly Silver's Forces of Labor (which she in turn took from Erik Olin Wright). We gave examples of Marketplace bargaining power, by detailing how the labor shortage in San Francisco is driving up wages -- despite wage being $15 an hour. On some streets in commercial districts every other storefront has a "Now Hiring" or "Help Wanted" sign in the window. Below are some examples on a single block:

The most extreme examples were from neighboring cities, like the Burger King in Half Moon Bay, where despite that county's minimum wage being $10 an hour they were paying $13. Or a See's Candy in San Francisco's Financial District where the minimum wage was the time was $14, but they were paying $18.02 -- a full $4 over the minimum!

We finished our demonstration of "Marketplace bargaining power" by showing how "Associational power" could further help leverage the power of workers on the shopfloor. We gave an historical example from previous successful organizing attempts:

It was pointed out that in addition to the associational power of the hospitality workers in San Francisco in the late 1930s/early 1940s, who had organized nearly the entire labor force, workers on the docks of the West Coast were building links of solidarity are also able to leverage similar class power on a wider regional scale. More recently, 70 marine clerks in ILWU Local 63 walked off jobs at APM Terminal Pier 400 at Port of Los Angeles in contract dispute – main issue being the outsourcing of their jobs with technology. They set up picket lines at 10 of 14 terminals at combined Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex, shutting it down 70% with solidarity of longshore workers in other locals refusing to cross lines. After 8 days, the strike ended with management conceding that none of the 600 clerk jobs would be outsourced and Local 63 continued working under expired contract. In most ports around the globe, these marine clerk jobs have been eliminated through technology, and when they haven't they've been outsources to remote locations like Dallas and Salt Lake City.

The ability of Local 63 to save their jobs was their ability to leverage both associational power by being in the ILWU which has a contract at all 29 ports on the West Coast, and using their fellow union members workplace bargaining power at the chokepoint of each port terminal, which are narrow bottlenecks in global supply chains. Below is Yossi Sheffi's chart identifying this type of power of disruption:

Here are the responses to questions about what kind of Workers' Power the rank-and-file have in each sector and whether they've ever acted on it.

Maritime:

    • we brought up “flags of convenience” for ship registration to avoid regulation and labor laws; someone called work on ships “indentured servitude”

Dockside:

    • during the ILWU struggle at grain ports 6 years ago, they went out on boats to try to encourage workers on grain ships to support their struggle in solidarity, and ended up encountering Japanese and Chinese maritime workers; they didn’t mention any success, but merely trying was admirable
    • two RWU “solidarity” members are ILWU dockers who work grain ports on the Columbia River, but had previously hired out on the railroad (UP & BNSF), and gave an account of the attempts to break up their master contract for grain handling ports in the Pacific Northwest; they talked about the new high tech terminals, like in Longview, which have more cameras and more surveillance; they later mentioned that transportation workers, like Teamster UPS drivers, “proudly” honored their picket lines and refused to cross at the grains ports of Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR when they were locked out
    • railroaders had covert “discussions” with longshore workers to support their actions at the EGT Terminal in Longview in 2011; a 110-car train had all the grain dumped to the ground, sparking wildcat walkout at most Pacific Northwest ports

Trucking (port troqueros):

    • we gave an overview of these troquero strikes at the LA/Long Beach Port complex:
    1988 2 1/2 weeks
    1991
    1993 11 days
    1996
    2004 strike, which spread north and included an 8-day blockade at the APL gate at the Port of Oakland; LA/Long Beach troqueros formed the Ricardo Flores Magon Branch of the Los Angeles IWW (IU 510); the Bay Area IWW branch was attempting to help Spanish-speaking and Punjabi-speaking truckers organize at the nearby inland Port of Stockton
    2005
    2006 May Day
    • someone asked why, with their the record of strikes, port truckers (at LA/Long Beach) haven’t leveraged their associational power to challenge their legal status; we answered by saying Teamsters appeal to state labor bureaucracies about the legal fiction of “misclassification,” often winning, and Wobbly-esque troquerosfile formal complaints with the IRS about their employers having not paid into Social Security and also often win; I emphasized that their true strength lies in direct action, not legalistic advocacy

Trucking (over-the-road)

    • in Louisville, KY, RWU and other union workers helped Teamster car loaders who were on strike; in solidarity, railroaders created a “chaos” strategy stopping all movement for 36 hours, helping car loaders win their strike
    • we told how during the 2004-2005 grocery strike among 77,000 workers in southern California, the UFCW set up pickets at regional distribution centers, completely paralyzing the resupply of the stores on strike right before Thanksgiving; for no apparent reason, UFCW pulled off the pickets and the stores were back in business, betraying a supply strategy that could have helped win the strike

Logistics:

    • while some tech workers participated in the workshop, some from Amazon in Seattle and others from San Francisco, they participated in discussions about the possibilities of cross-sectoral solidarity during informal breakout groups later over lunch

The workshop finished with a thought-experiment, a hypothetical strike at a Chicagoland Amazon warehouse and everyone was asked to brainstorm how other sectors along supply chains could act in solidarity. The floor was open to discussion and it was a lively interchange about how the strike could be supported. Here are slides showing the growth of Amazon warehouses, how Amazon drives down wages, and the location of new facilities near Chicago:



Everyone in the room was given a sheet with the following questions:

Here are the comments from the floor in response to those questions:

    • an RWU member said, “in terms of rail we know where those chokepoints are, where those supply chain vulnerabilities are . . . places like Chicago or Kansas City or other vital interchange terminals largely in the Midwest . . . and that’s why place like Kansas City or Chicago are so important in terms of getting organized”
    • a comment from floor said that compared to Walmart, Amazon isn’t retail and has a different dynamic and more of a focus on fulfilling orders, with more surveillance and automation but not so much of a need to curtail organizing – yet
    • an Amazon warehouse worker in the Chicago area said managers seem to be very “green” and “there’s opportunity right now” and “because they’re expanding so much they don’t have firm control over every single” warehouse
    • one of the RWU machinists working for Union Pacific in Kansas City said their biggest competition for “non-agreement” (mid-level, uncontracted?) managers is Amazon, with all the new warehouses being built near Kansas City, the biggest turnover is with managers leaving and going to Amazon . . . sometimes for even less pay, because unlike management at UP, they are not as much of “dickheads”
    • an RWU engineer talked about the high priority “hotshot” trains in yards like Chicago
    with “extremely time sensitive cargos” making them vulnerable to disruption
    • comparison with West Virginia school workers strike, saying organizing that set off the strike was by rank-and-file militants in a single location who called for “joint meetings” with all school workers, from the kitchen hands to bus drivers to teachers, and everyone had a vote whether they were in a union or not, doing coordination “industrially”
    • another RWU member said it would be an opportunity for Teamster package handlers to connect with Amazon warehouse workers because they’re doing the same job and using the same technology, as well as connecting with postal workers who are part of the chain too
    • many locomotive engineers are Teamsters, who heard of union-organized truck caravans taking supplies for hurricane relief to Texas, showing that infrastructure for strike support exists but militants need to make use of it for radical ends
    • railroad workers are under the Railway Labor Act, not NLRA, so they can honor secondary boycotts; the Chicago Amazon warehouse worker wants to connect with railroaders to further build on this possibility

As we broke for lunch, Polish Amazon warehouse workers sat down and talked with Chicago Amazon warehouse workers and were soon joined by Amazon tech workers from Seattle. These workers began discussing how they could coordinate their efforts and create a grouping of all Amazon workers, which would be amazing, organizing industrially across sectors and borders, to build a global network of Amazon workers. An internationalist expression of the Chicago Idea!

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Supply Chain Re...
Jun 30 2018 05:32

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  • In terms of rail we know where those chokepoints are, where those supply chain vulnerabilities are... places like Chicago or Kansas City or other vital interchange terminals largely in the Midwest... and that’s why place like Kansas City or Chicago are so important in terms of getting organized."

    --RWU rank-and-file railroader

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