The sh*t raiser speaks! Interview with Judi Bari

Chris Carlsson and Med-o interview workplace and environmental activist Judy Bari on April 20, 1992 in Mendocino County.

Judi Bari was born in Baltimore in 1949. She attended the University of Maryland, where she majored in anti-Vietnam War rioting. Since college credit is rarely given for such activities, Judi was soon forced to drop out of college with a political education but no degree. She then embarked on a 20-year career as a blue-collar worker. During that time she became active in the union movement and helped lead two strikes--one of 17,000 grocery clerks in the Maryland/D.C./Virginia area (unsuccessful, smashed by the union bureaucrats) and one (successful) wildcat strike against the U.S. Postal Service at the Washington D.C. Bulk Mail Center.

In 1979 Judi moved to Northern California, got married and had babies. After her divorce in 1988, she supported her children by working as a carpenter building yuppie houses out of old-growth redwood. It was this contradiction that sparked her interest in Earth First!

As an Earth First! organizer, Judi became a thorn in the side of Big Timber by bringing her labor experience and sympathies into the environmental movement. She built alliances with timber workers while blockading their operations, and named the timber corporations and their chief executive officers as being responsible for the destruction of the forest.

In 1990, while on a publicity tour for Earth First! Redwood Summer, Judi was nearly killed in a car-bomb assassination attempt. Although all evidence showed that the bomb was hidden under Judi's car seat and intended to kill her, police and FBI arrested her (and colleague Darryl Cherney) for the bombing, saying that it was their bomb and they were knowingly carrying it. For the next eight weeks they were subjected to a police- orchestrated campaign in the national and local press to make them appear guilty of the bombing. Finally the district attorney declined to press charges for lack of evidence. To this day the police have conducted no serious investigation of the bombing, and the bomber remains at large.

Crippled for life by the explosion, Judi has returned to her home in the redwood region and resumed her work in defense of the forest. She and Darryl are also suing the FBI and other police agencies for false arrest, presumption of guilt, and civil rights violations. Judi now lives in Willits, California with her two children.

Chris Carlsson: Where do you stand on the Work Ethic?

Judi Bari: Totally against it. It is absolutely sick!

CC: What do you think of as “human nature” when it comes to work and useful activities? How does the existing order encourage or obstruct this “nature”? How does workplace organizing tap into this “nature”?

JB: I think people like to work if work is not alienated, not artificially construed by the system that makes it pure hell, that goes against every instinct. But I think that work, meaning like what you need to do to provide sustenance, that in itself as a concept is not something that people mind. I think that working ridiculous amounts of hours including 8 a day or 40 a week is not “natural,” but I think working is something that's natural and enjoyable and I think that without any work people in general would not feel comfortable. But work needs to be completely redefined from what it is right now. Now it is pure oppression, what did you say, 80% of work is unnecessary?, absolutely TRUE! Not only is it absolutely unnecessary but the method by which it's organized is horrible. It goes against everything, you have to suppress every instinct of enjoyment that you have in your being to go and put yourself in one of these stupid jobs. [laughter]

CC: And workplace organizing?

JB: Hey it makes work fun. I only had one job when I actually liked the job itself and that was being a carpenter. I enjoyed the job, I enjoyed being able to build something that was beautiful and I was proud of myself for being able to read the plans and figure it out. But all the other jobs I had I hated. Physically standing at a cash register, or unloading a truck or whatever, or standing at a bottling line, making the same motion over and over all day long. The jobs totally sucked, but organizing was really fun. It gave me something to think about and do at work. I'm not saying “would the end result of organizing under capitalism be an enjoyable job?” -- No! We have to completely rearrange the way we work and what we call work before it would be enjoyable. But what do we do in the meantime while we're waiting for the revolution? The only way to be able to stand a job is to raise shit there. That's just personal experience, that's not political theory. [laughter]

I [had] a job at a post office factory. Everybody worked under one roof and the conditions were outrageous. It was 85% black, mostly from the inner city, right across the Maryland line in the inner suburbs. We didn't even bother with any of the three different unions or their meetings. We did direct action on the workroom floor, put out an outrageous newsletter [Postal Strife] that was real funny, lampooning management. We weren't allowed to strike against the government, that was illegal and we'd get fired, so we had a “walk-in” where we met on both shifts and walked into the manager's office. We had sick-outs and slow-downs and trash-ins and sabotage days, and we got control of the whole factory--it also took about one- and-a-half years. It peaked in a wildcat strike which was actually successful.

[Postal Strife] wasn't just reporting on things. . . it was instigating things. When we first started to get power, at one point “Miz Julie” decided to be generous and offer us all a Xmas party. So on company time we were forced to attend this party. We weren't allowed to go outside and smoke pot or to go out to lunch, and this was her big generous thing. Then it turned out that it was illegal, because on company time she wasn't allowed to do that because we would have to work all this overtime because the machinery didn't work, so she was going to get in a lot of trouble. So she changed her mind and decided it was off the clock, and she was going to dock us all for two hours because she had forced us to go to this party. People were really pissed. She called in the union to break the news to them, to tell them “this is the problem, and what can we do about it?” and the union rep said “oh, it's ok, you can have the hour.” But then Miss Julie realized that that wouldn't mean anything. So she did something completely illegal in a plant with a recognized bargaining unit, she called in the leaders of Postal Strife [our newsletter/group] because she knew that if we didn't agree to it that it wasn't going to fly. We came in as dirty as we could and sprawled on her white couches. She said she wanted her hour back, and we said “well, what are you going to give us? How about 15 minute breaks?” We had no authority to bargain at all. So she said, “OK, I can't officially give you 15 minute breaks but unofficially we won't make you go back, we'll give you an extra 5 minutes, but it'll be under the table.” We said we can't talk for people on the shop floor, and we had to talk to them and see what they would say. So we walk out. Then she discovers that she's made another mistake: it's totally illegal to bargain with us when there's an exclusive bargaining agent. So she's pleading with us not to tell anyone, and we wrote the whole story up and drew a picture of her crying, “please give me my hour back!” [laughter] We really began to erode their power and gain power way before we gained official power.

CC: That's a question I always find interesting. Don't you think there's actually more power at that moment than what you had with formal control?

JB: No, the most power we got was afterwards, because first we did this actual real work--there was a peak and an ebb--first there was this peak of real live worker control because--We had a quote of the month in the paper, which was “the way I look at overtime, is the first 8 hours I got to put up with them, the last 2 hours they got to put up with me.” That really was the truth. They couldn't get anyone to do any work on overtime, and not much the rest of the day when they were giving us overtime. One time the safe was locked (with our paychecks) and we were on night shift, and the only key was at Miss Julie's house, she lived in Virginia, so we formed a posse in the middle of the workroom floor, and we were about to walk out and drive to her house at 11:30 at night, and they suddenly found the key. [laughter] We had real raw power, OK? When we had the strike, and after we walked out on strike the union fell apart and we got the control of the union. That's when we really got power. Then we had the official power, and the respect of the workers, which was based on real direct action and real self-empowerment, so we started substantially changing the working conditions, including sneaking a Jack Anderson reporter in and got two national articles written about the place.

I didn't have to work anymore. I used to spend my whole day on the shop floor. I used to have to sneak out to do these little things, but then when I was Shop Steward I could spend the whole day, 8 hours a day, raising hell, it was great! I got paid for it! We really changed the working conditions, we changed the personnel, and they weren't getting away with shit. And what happened is that the working conditions got better.

I was the Chief Shop Steward and the coalition began settling for things and selling out and things began to fall apart, so now we worked 40 hours a week instead of 60-80, the supervisors weren't as nasty to us, it wasn't as dangerous and the new people that came in started to be more conservative. Some of the real radicals started to be less radical. I knew, the manager didn't know, but I knew that we no longer had the support on the shop floor. So I was living on a shell, I could get this guy to give up grievances because he thought that I could mobilize the workroom floor with the snap of a finger. The fact is I couldn't anymore, because people had gotten way conservative because working conditions were better. I quit to move to California before he figured out that we didn't really have rank and file power anymore. But we really did, and the peak was when we assumed official power after the strike, before it got so soft that people got conservative.

CC: In retrospect, do you imagine you should have gone in a different direction after you got official power to avoid this “bourgeois-ification”?

JB: I don't know. The problem is that our goals were limited. It doesn't matter how good we were, the biggest thing we were asking for was better working conditions for our factory that employed 800 people. We weren't asking to overthrow the wage system, we didn't have a political context in which we were operating, other than using very radical tactics to win workers' demands. Maybe it would have moved someplace else, maybe another factory that we were working with, or maybe it would be another issue, but we would have had to have some kind of thing that went beyond those narrow demands.

CC: Because those are satisfiable, essentially?

JB: Yeah, without changing the basic problem, y'know, which is this whole industrial organization, etc.

CC: Did you keep in touch with this place after you left? Did they go through a big wave of automation and restructuring?

JB: I still have some friends there, but no, it's still the same old machinery. They combined some of the functions, but it's basically the same structure. All of the gains that were made, were all lost. The bulk mail wave of restructuring was in the '70s, I don't know what happened in the '80s except that we lost all the gains. All the bulk mail centers had these really bad working conditions, and throughout the history of them there were lots of spontaneous walkouts, that never led to better conditions. The difference was that our effort did. There were 3 places that went on strike when we did: New York, Richmond California and us, and we were the only ones that didn't get fired. The rest of them all got fired. They lost their demands. Since we were not even part of a larger postal group, we weren't even part of a TDU [Teamsters for a Democratic Union]. We were just a single factory, we communicated with the other ones that went on strike, but there wasn't any larger organization at all, there wasn't even a way of spreading it throughout the postal workers, much less expanding it to larger demands. I think that's one of the reasons why it was so easy and successful, is that it was such a small movement with limited demands. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a good thing to do because it gave people the experience of successful collective action, probably the first in their lives.

CC: Maybe their last.

JB: Yeah, right. Now it's this legend, this thing that happened in the past, and everything settled back to the way it used to be . . . and the postal workers have lost a lot of ground. The postal workers had a nationwide wildcat strike, it was the most recent nationwide wildcat, in the 1970s, and that's when they won collective bargaining rights, believe it or not, it was in 1970. They didn't even have integrated unions in 1970. The US Post Office had a black union and a white union! Isn't that amazing? There was a spontaneous rebellion against really bad conditions, but back in 1970 the postal workers had a lot of power, a lot more than they knew, because at any one time 25% of the U.S.'s monetary supply was tied up in the mail, OK? When they called in the Army to break the strike (the postal workers have an inordinate number of Army veterans because they give you a 10 point preference on the test if you're a veteran), a lot of them were sympathetic because of the other Army people that worked there. So the Army people that were brought in--well, the workers sabbed [sabotaged the stuff as much as they could, and a lot of the Army people contributed to sabbing it, and fucked everything up. So they got really fucked up in a very short time, it was like a one week strike, and the whole mail was tied up in knots, and a big piece of the monetary supply, so they had to settle the strike, and they recognized bargaining power in 1970 for a national union. I don't know of any other national union that was first recognized in 1970, or even anywhere near that. Now, with fax machines and electronic funds transfer, the postal workers have much less economic power than they did in 1970. They wouldn't even have the capacity to pull off such a strike if they wanted to.

CC: Get ready for the privatization of mail.

JB: Oh, absolutely!

CC: The fact is that most of what we do is a waste of time. Our politics has to really emphasize the uselessness of work. That has to be upfront.

JB: We really do our political work in different cultures. Yours is one that is at the forward end of the techological bullshit, in the evolution of the society from industrial to technological. But I'm working with retro, with what's left of the old industrial proletariat. So I think there's different value systems at play. The work ethic is very important. One of the reasons why the timber workers will relate to me more than most environmentalists is because they know I am by career a blue collar worker. The idea of not working is really offensive to them, in fact, that's the big thing they always say to the hippies, “why don't these people get a job?” So what do we say? “Cut your job, get some hair!” [laughter I live in a place where they shaved hippies' dreadlocks in jail, I mean, what year is this? We're living in a time warp. Really, we're talking about different centuries here, certainly different decades.

Med-o: Chris and I have talked about this a lot: How do you organize people to get rid of their jobs? How do workers get organized with their main purpose to eliminate their jobs?

JB: There needs to be some other vision of what there is to do. I don't really see us at that stage yet. We know this is wrong. We know that this is NOT it, whatever it is, it's not this. [laughter]And I think people can relate to that, and it gives them room for their own creativity. I think I have a problem with organizers feeling like they have to have all the answers, NOW. Part of the problem is that we have to think collectively and figure it out, and it has to be based on our collective experience. And we haven't even had that experience yet!

CC: How do you feel about the average person's ability to participate in a process like that? I think everybody's got a great capacity for thought, but I don't think very many people have much experience or practice or natural native talent for cooperative group processes.

JB: Well, I don't know about native talent, it's certainly been bred out of us. It's a problem trying to organize in this society--I don't think there's ever been a society as brainwashed as this one. The whole workplace, the way it's set up is designed to make you into an automaton. It's hard but those little glimmers that we do get ARE so much more fun and so much more fulfilling than anything anybody's done in their life.

CC: A lot of time the things that cause people to band together in union, whether it's a legal institution or not (I personally favor the informal approach)--I think a lot of times the impulses that get people motivated to take that kind of action are somewhat conservative. They're worried, they're afraid, they want to defend themselves. They're not really looking at the big picture, and saying “well, jeez, this whole way of life is ridiculous and some bigger change has to happen.” Now I'm not saying some kind of religious transformation has to take place across the planet--all of a sudden everybody agrees that it's all bullshit and let's stop and do something else, but I don't see much hope for a political movement based on worker organizing that doesn't have at least its eyes set on that goal.

JB: Yeah because the whole way we work is ridiculous. People are really alienated from the way that they work because it's ridiculous.

CC: People are pretty afraid to embrace that kind of vision.

JB: Because you don't just start from that. You have to start where people are. You have to have one eye on where people are and one eye on where we wanna be. To try to start from way here, that may scare people off. But after they have a little experience with self-empowerment through a movement, then more broad ideas come up and begin to be discussed, and people become more open to more ideas when they start seeing change and start seeing that they're able to make change. It doesn't mean you have to start within these little narrow confines, but you can't be so miles out in front of people that they can't relate to what you're saying.

CC: I agree with that, but often times an idea as simple and direct as “most of the work we do is a waste of time and no one should do it” is treated as an out-of-bounds idea.

JB: No people love it! Everybody agrees. But after that idea comes, you have to ask “can we do anything about it?"

CC: Right.

JB: I guess that's where it's an out-of-bounds idea, is that they don't think that there's anything they can do about it. I think that's because people haven't experienced collective action.

CC: You said that we have to go to where people are. Now that's often a code expression for bread and butter issues.

JB: No, I didn't say we have to go where people are, I said we have to keep one eye on where people are and one eye on where we wanna be, that's different than saying we have to go where people are.

CC: You're still in a perspective where you're making certain analytical judgments about where people are, and trying to reach to that position from another position that you don't think they're ready for yet.

JB: No, it's not that I don't think they're ready for my vision of a perfect world, since I don't even know my vision yet. I gotta interact with the people to find out WHAT we are collectively capable of doing. It's not just my ideas to be imposed on the group, it's that we're gonna get this group together and see where our collective ideas take us.

CC: The incredible power of recuperation . . . That's why I keep stumbling around these questions of vision, what's going to inspire people in a passionate way to get out of the box? The logic of immediate issues whatever they might be, tend to be rooted in a conservative impulse, a defensive strategy. The notion that people are gonna somehow engage in a “process” around that, and that's going to lead to a day when they have a broader, more assertive life . . . I don't see why one would lead to the other at all.

JB: OK. Well, let's look at it up here, because this is a different situation, it's much less a traditional workerist kind of thing. What we have is this dual economy and dual culture--marijuana, timber, hippies, stompers, so we have these two kind of parallel things. The most significant thing that this small group that I work with has done is to link the two. We've got this back-to-the-land movement grown up 20 years, a whole generation older now with adult kids. People have experimented with “simple lifestyles,” and ended up in hippie palaces. There's kind of this vision of ecotopia, of a society that lives in harmony with the earth and with each other, and offers a new way of relating and organizing the whole of society, right? It's a larger vision. The shorter thing we've fought life and death battles over is the survival of the ecosystem--really trial by fire out here. We've won some really important victories, but by and large the county's been clearcut. Now what's happening is that the timber companies are leaving, they're done, they're packing up and leaving. Normally what happens at this stage is gentrification comes in, the wineries and the yuppies, and all that stuff, and marching behind that comes real estate development.

So now we're at a turning point, and I am absolutely not predicting that this is going to happen because we're up against tremendous forces, including the fact that they're willing to kill and use sophisticated psychological operations and all this other stuff. So now we're at this place where the timber companies are leaving, and what is there in their place? Well there's this big movement now for some economy based on restoration. The money of course is going to have to come from outside, because our resource base has been removed via clearcutting. There's lots of poverty pimp money being thrown for other things, they're talking about spending $200 million to buy forest parcels from Hurwitz, and we say he doesn't own it, he crashed an S&L to get the money to work with Michael Milkin to take over Pacific Lumber, so debt-for-nature swap--don't give any money to Hurwitz, the same money you've got to pay off Hurwitz should go to the community to fund an economy based on restoring the forest. In the process of restoration there's some products that can come out of it, but I don't think there's enough to base an economy on. But some kind of alternative economy--Willits calls itself the Solar Capital of the World, and they have all these little solar experiments, and solar cars. Then there's the marijuana economy, and the hemp movement. So now we're at this juncture where it can either go the traditional way of moving into gentrification or if we could seize the initiative here at this particular juncture to turn away from the traditional capitalist model and try to find another way to do it, then I think it could be theoretically possible. I think the only way it could happen, what I think I got almost killed for, is you've got all this timber land that's totally trashed out, and if it isn't held in trust for a long time the whole ecosystem is going to collapse. The only way that [getting the land into trust could happen would be if the county used its power of eminent domain to seize all the corporate timberlands . . . Well, I guess they'd come in with the tanks, it would never happen, would it?

CC: So what's going to excite people now? Certainly it's not because they're workers that they're going to get involved with anything. On the other hand, as we know perfectly well, the real social power that exists to really fuck with the system is found in the workplace. So there's strategic power there, but it's not necessary that there be this psychological identification . . . It's basic to Wobbly philosophy and to most proponents of labor organizing, that you have to somehow act on your social function as a worker, as opposed to thinking about taking advantage of the strategic power at work as a part of something else--

JB: We worked with the workers on workplace issues, and we formed alliances on broader issues, and pretty soon the workers that we were defending on the PCB spills were defending us on the destruction of the forest. So the people in Earth First! who say I'm a sell-out for wanting to work with workers in extractive industries, well, I call it the “Future Ex-Logger Coalition” because by the time that they're ready to work with us, they've had it with the job.

CC: So do you think they really embrace an ecological agenda?

JB: Oh well they certainly do, yeah. In fact, interestingly . . . when I interviewed workers I asked about working conditions. But what made them begin to question the company in many cases were sentiments like “I went out to my favorite spot and it was gone. You know I used to take my son fishing, and now there's no more fish.” One of the episodes at the Fort Bragg rally, the famous dramatic confrontation in the middle of town when the Earth First! rally comes face to face with the yellow-ribbon-waving - crazed - drunk - alcoholic -abusive ranting and raving, and we offer them the microphone. These three loggers get up there and the first two just rage, and then the third one gets up, and he's 5th generation with the whole accent, and the whole trip, (we didn't know him, he was not a plant, he was somebody we'd never worked with before), and he said “You all know me, I grew up with you,” he addressed the loggers, and he said “I used to log in the summer and fish in the winter, and now there's no more logs and no more fish. I never wanted to put my family on welfare, but I put my family in welfare because I can't do this anymore, I can't keep destroying this place I love,” and he said he was going to dedicate his life to opening a recycling center, so he can have right livelihoood. There is a group of ex-timber workers who want to do some kind of reparations and right livelihood. The coalition of people who criticized us from the enviromental movement, who criticized us for advocating the interests of extractive industry workers, they don't understand what we're doing at all. Not in any way, shape or form are we advocating traditional unionism, even though we had Georgia Pacific workers wearing IWW buttons to work. These [logging companies are almost done, they're outta here. Right now Georgia Pacific's redwood section is less than 1% of the overall operation. It's basically a pulp and paper company, primarily based in the south. Then they have this little Western Division up here that does redwood, and it consists of one big mill. Before they would recognize a Wobbly union they would definitely close the mill. There's just no question that we don't have a single chance in organizing for traditional labor goals. We're looking at an industry that's on its way out. What we're talking about is what we're going to do after it leaves, and how we're going to seize control of our community so that we CAN do what we think needs to be done after it leaves. That's the broader question that we're working, is community control of our community so that it won't be turned into yuppies, and the timber workers won't be displaced. Right now we're controlled by out-of-state corporations.

CC: I wonder how you imagine controlling the outside capital that might be coming in?

JB: I don't think you can solve all the problems without a revolution! We advocated for the workers who got PCB dumped on them, we advocated for the worker who got killed in a Ukiah mill and got criminal charges brought against Louisiana-Pacific, we interviewed workers about their working conditions, but that's the narrower thing, and we're also talking about this broader thing of resource destruction, of out-of-town evil corporation. The alliance with workers based on workplace issues has been translated into a larger question of the resource base, and the height that it got to was demanding the eminent domain seizure of the timber industry by the county.

CC: Socialism in Mendocino County!

JB: You know what happened after we did that, besides that they tried to kill me for it . . . We started from workplace problems, we went to resource destruction, and then we started to demand eminent domain seizure. That was certainly taking it into a broader context!

You have to start where people are. You have to have one eye on where people are and one eye on where we wanna be.
Judi Bari