Columns from 2008

Other columns from 2008 include:
-Emotional Pressure And Organization Building
-Replace yourself
-What does the IWW do?

Health Clinic Organizing

Todd Hamilton's account of building committees and acting on grievances through direct action in health clinics.

Workers have been organizing at a low income reproductive health clinic for the past few months. It all began when the company, which was on solid footing, had gone on a hiring spree and improved a lot of working conditions. The federal government began requiring any recipient of aid (the majority of our patients) to prove citizenship. Undocumented workers don't actually need to strangely, all they need is to indicate that they're permanent residents. The net effect on the industry has been to cut 30% of the funding to all low-income clinics generally. That is the real target of this federal assault, to cut social funding under the guise of racially based nationalist sentiments.

Management's response was mass layoffs of departments, internal restructuring, productivity increase measures, and a hiring freeze. The workers responded actively and vocally. At first the resistance was individualized, emails and phone calls to management expressing agitation. As this method was fairly ineffective, workers began using staff meetings and other such channels to confront management in spontaneous groupings around the natural social circles at work. As the heat continued to escalate, management rolled over on a number of demands. The hiring freeze was lifted, yearly raises were returned, and management made an effort to meet with workers to hear concerns and supposedly to incorporate ideas for solving problems. Part of this came from the fact that management is split by their commitment to serving patients as people, but without organization these demands were systematically ignored.

The spontaneous groups were easily distracted by small concessions (e.g. changing the color of toilet seats), divided by quibbling, and diffused by management. Management began engaging in a propaganda campaign to try and win the hearts and minds of workers, who are vocally angry and resistant. Many of the senior staff quit, leaving a fresh workforce who are largely ignorant of the context of struggles going on. Amidst this, workers at two clinics organized as a group, and demanded a meeting with the CEO in order to air grievances. These ended up with management dodging demands (when workers, ill-prepared, fragmented during the meetings) and focusing on the easy-to-fix trivial demands.

Conditions at clinics vary wildly as well, and despite general anxiety over layoffs and restructuring, not all clinics feel the same level of frustration. At my clinic a similar meeting was friendly with management to the point of offering personal sacrifices (such as paying more for health insurance). This is in part due to turn over (90% of the workers have been at my clinic less than two months), and also due to the beliefs and positions carved out by the one or two senior staff.

The most successful was a meeting with a clinic where a small committee had been built with myself and two IWW sympathizers who have been organizing. A one page list of demands was prepared, and the clinic as a whole endorsed it. The organizers in the shop inoculated their coworkers about management's potential responses, and got together to make sure everyone stayed on their collective message. Their crucial demand was more staff at their horribly understaffed clinic. The meeting went well with management taking their demands seriously.

After the meeting more staff were hired, and the way staffing is allocated was modified somewhat. The workers feel like they got what they wanted, but the systemic issues remain untouched. They decided that they needed to next time be less conciliatory, and to have a plan to escalate actions if they don't get what they demand.

Management's strategy has been to try to listen to worker concerns, without giving a place to actually be able to implement them, and to roll over on the easier demands that improve the business anyway. For example, our use of the internet had been taken away from all staff on a whim citing a few individuals using myspace too much. Widespread protests about needing such basics as maps and bus schedules for patients eventually won back full internet usage rights. Likewise protests over a bizarre rule to do pelvic exams on all women who enter the clinic, quickly overturned the policy.

The most hopeful turn of events is the building of a cross-clinic organizing committee, which has workers from four of the five greater metropolitan area clinics. The first meeting was held recently, where it was decided to build an organizing committee, map all the clinics, identify leadership, begin pushing demands across the company, and eventually have an independent workers organization that implement and negotiate our grievances directly. As management has caved on our demands so quickly, and turn-over is so high, we've exhausted much of our agitational issues. For this reason the committee decided to begin building the relationships and solidarity through social activities and education that will provide a foundation for the next grievances that surface. With a committee already in place, and a structure to work with, we can prepare to act collectively and implement our desires.

Originally appeared in the February 2008 Industrial Worker

Wage Theft Picket

An account of a campaign to win a worker's back wages through pickets and the threat of escalation.

One day I told a friend of mine about an action the General Membership Branch did where we got someone a few shifts' worth of wages after he got fired quickly from a new job. We called for a picket. It didn't actually happen. The boss caved as soon as the first two guys showed up with a stack of signs. Then another former employee who had left town, and had been trying to wrestle her last two weeks pay from the boss caught word of it. She talked to the boss and said something to the effect of, “Heard there was a picket, shame if there was another one.” She had tried for months to get her money, after the picket she got it right away.

My buddy said, “Hey I know someone in a similar situation.” He passed on our IWW contact details. His friend had worked at a club for a few weeks. She was fired because the boss couldn't afford all of the staff he had. She had already contacted the employer to ask for her back wages. No matter happen, no matter how many phone calls she made, she was stonewalled by her ex-boss.

She joined the union and asked for help. Her ex-boss is emotionally manipulative and unstable. She wanted us to go for her initially. I volunteered with another Wobbly to meet with her ex-boss. I was initially reluctant to be a representative because I'd never done it before. But the thing needed doing so I put on a suit. We went to the business. We hung around waiting for the boss to come and open up. He was unwilling to talk to us. The other fellow worker gave the boss his cell phone number. We told him we are going to have a picket but he can phone us if he'd like to reconsider. We left and a little while latter the boss phoned us. He wanted to meet. He said he would call but later with a meeting time. He didn't.

We learned from this action not to do everything for the worker. In planning the next steps we made sure she was involved... we aren't a service union after all. We tried to help out with the stuff that she couldn't do. This way we did a better job of helping the worker be the organizer. Still, it's hard to teach what you're just learning. Neither of us who were being representatives have much experience in this stuff.

A picket was called for 9:30 p.m. one night. The worker invited a bunch of her friends. I sent out a facebook invite. A bunch of People's Global Action folks were having a meeting around the corner. They came by after that was done. When I got there, there were about 10 folks. I'd say there was a total of maybe 35 people coming and going, with about 20 at any one time. It was a solid picket.

The guy I was working with made up a little leaflet briefly stating that the business doesn't pay it's staff and people shouldn't patronize the club/restaurant. The headline was “FREE DRINKS.” The text explained that if workers aren't getting paid the owner shouldn't be charging. Most folks got the joke but one woman apparently went in, ordered a drink and presented the flyer, thinking it was a coupon. She came out angry about that, screaming and swearing. I felt bad that someone had to get upset but outside of that the leaflet worked well. The boss called the cops saying we were starting fights with customers. They left quickly when they saw what was going on.

At first the employer wouldn't meet with us to talk unless we told the picket to leave first. We said no. Eventually he came out to talk. In addition to us three who were involved in negotiating, one of the bigger, burlier members of the branch was also present. There was a feeling amongst the wobs that we needed some sort of physically imposing presence “in case of trouble”. As he had no experience with the boss he said something that made the guy upset and he left. I personally didn't feel at all like I was going to be physically threatened in this situation and as the picket wore on and we had subsequent conversations with the owner, I became more firm about not needing anyone other than the three of us who were involved around. It was too difficult to deal with strategy-wise, and bringing machismo into things seems like a bad move in general.

As time went on and his nightclub stayed empty he began to come out looking increasingly concerned. He wanted to talk again. This time just the three of us went upstairs with him. We were obviously hurting him, as the club was almost empty.

We won half the wages owed in cash and a written statement promising to pay the remainder next Saturday. If he didn't pay there would be another picket. We were promised by the head of the District Labour Council that they would support us on this matter (unprecedented in my knowledge). We are using the possibility of an even bigger picket, with media this time, as a guarantee.

This may not directly lead to any organized shops, but actions like this are helpful to folks, including ourselves. We gain valuable skills we can use when there are bigger fish to fry. Taking actions like this builds real solidarity. We can point to these actions when someone asks, “What does the IWW do?”

Originally appeared in the April 2008 Industrial Worker

3 years of organizing under Right-to-Work

An account of organizing with teachers and the small successes and failures that had happened.

I live and work in a “right-to-work” state in the United States where all workers have the right to quit at anytime, yet they can also be terminated at any time. Where’s the benefit in that type of work environment?

For the last three years, that work environment has had a huge influence on my unionizing efforts. At my place of employment I am the only IWW member. At times, it can be very discouraging, but I have learned that persistence is a must if anything is to be accomplished.

Successes

1. I have been able to get my fellow teachers together at a restaurant or someone’s house a number of times where we have developed and agreed to a list of concerns that have been presented to our boss and her boss.

2. We have had three meetings with management with all teachers present.

3. We have all resorted to using work-to-rule tactics, i.e., we do only the absolute minimum by following the rules exactly.

4. If management tells us to do something more, “speed up”, we ignore it. We make management get off their asses and come to us with their concerns and then we ignore them again. Management frequently doesn’t ask again because it makes them work harder.

5. We keep labor journals and compare notes daily. For example, management will play favorites with employees. They’ll say one thing to one teacher and say something completely different to another teacher. When we compare notes, we find the most advantageous “saying” and then hold them to it. They hate that because not only does it limit their ability to talk to workers, it also limits their ability to pit one worker against another. They lose power and control.

Learning from failure

Unfortunately, everything hasn’t been bread and roses. Here are some examples of failures.

1. I have succeeded in signing one co-worker to our union. She then moved on and discontinued her membership.

2. I have been unable to sustain my fellow workers’ interest in being more militant. Once something improves they stop.

3. I have not been able to keep coworkers together. They leave as soon as they can for a “better” job. Consequently, there is a high turnover rate that hinders worker solidarity and makes it harder to keep the gains we have made together.

4. Beware the Canary Letter. Once a year the company has all employees fill out a survey. The teachers made sure they were negative and unsigned. Our boss wanted us to turn them in to her. Instead I mixed them up with non-teaching staff then slid them under the Human Resources door unseen. Within 30 minutes our boss was running around asking all the teachers why everyone was so upset, etc. How did the bosses know? It’s called the canary letter. Each department will have a different survey. It could be a different question, misspelled word, different numbered pages so that the boss can know at least what department it came from, even if it is not signed.

5. The most hurtful episode was when we had a labor faker in our midst. He came out all gung ho for everything union. He expressed the same sentiments as everyone else. He had some good ideas. All that changed when we were having a meeting with the two bosses. He acted like Rambo by expressing opinions that were either not agreed upon or were designed to sidetrack our demands and place the meeting into chaos. That was the first inkling that we had a faker.

The last episode was when he got in trouble for something that happened in his class. From what we can gather, he unloaded his guts about what the teachers really thought about everything. In consequence, the teaching staff attended two “mandatory meetings” where the management asked everyone “what was really going on?” while the labor faker sat there with us.

None of us admitted to anything and the faker remains employed. Needless to say but we treat him as someone not worth our trust or loyalty.

Originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of the Industrial Worker

SOAP for Workers Power

A column advocating a system of assessing people that is used in health care be utilized in our workplace organizing.

Healthcare workers have a way of note-taking called SOAP. SOAP stands for Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan.

In the subjective section, the clinician will write down the general condition of the patient, usually based on what the patient says about their health. All the vitals and observed information are collected in the objective portion of the note. This could be blood pressure, pulse, skin discoloration, whatever. An assessment is a skeleton of the main symptoms and corresponding diagnoses in the order of most to least likely. Based on the evidence and assessments, the provider then gives a plan for correcting the problems.

This way of documenting interactions with patients and coming up with a game plan is a useful tool for workplace organizing. It can help us think critically about the conversations we have, the conclusions we draw, and how to move forward out of our one-on-one discussions. As organizers, we are trying to get a handle on the situation in a workplace and what we have to do to build an organization.

How do we get from where we are to where we want to be? With this in mind, our subjective assessments are the conversations and things our co-workers say around the shop. Our objective section is the actions that we can see our co-workers taking part in. This allows us to see the difference between what people say and what they do. This isn’t to judge people or harass them about what they do or don’t do, but just to get a sense of what we can rely on, what we need to help along, and what motivates people so that we can effectively build a real democratic group effort to change our workplaces.

In the assessment section, we lay out our take on the person, situation or action planned. We come to that conclusion based on the evidence we have (written in the other sections). Our plan gives the next steps to build more workplace power. The idea with all this is that we use objective standards for the conclusions we draw and the plans that we cook up. People naturally rely on their instincts and impressions of others around them, but our instincts tend to be filtered through our personalities and where we are at, which can color our organizing.

By separating out observations and activities, like we do in healthcare, we can get a better sense of the situation. They are also accessible to other organizers working on the campaign and can be scrutinized, altered, and revised. This allows others to see how the work is done, hold each other accountable, and have concrete documentation should we need to use it against the boss.

Originally appeared in the July/August 2008 Industrial Worker

Forget industrial power

A piece advocating that the IWW should concentrate on organizing small shops, rather than large companies.

The old wobbly song “There Is Power In A Union” goes “There is power there is power in a band of working folks, When they stand hand in hand.” This is the basic idea of a union, strength in numbers. We're lacking in the numbers department in the IWW today. So our power is small, at least in one important sense. We need to recognize this if we're going to grow quickly and efficiently, without cutting any corners in terms of member education and development

Some people in the IWW think we should organize big companies that dictate conditions for the rest of their industry because they have such a large share of the market. If we make changes at the industry or market leaders then we make change across the whole industry. That's true, and we should organize these companies (we should organize everywhere). But the reality is that our power is small compared to big companies.

More than that, our first priority right now should not be to make change for as many workers as possible across an industry. Our first priority right now should be to have members improve their own lives at work and to recruit other organizers out of our co-workers. That will build our pool of committed, capable organizers so that we can eventually have really enormous impacts for our whole class.

On the short term we should focus on small companies instead of big ones. We are tiny compared to a multinational company and so is our relative power. But compared to a small “mom-and-pop” grocery store or a locally owned restaurant with 20 employees, or a fast food franchise where the owned has 5 stores and 75 employees, we are huge. We have branches that are bigger than companies of that size. We can run picket lines and other actions against those companies which can really hurt them economically (as opposed to picketing, say, WalMart) because every shop is a huge portion of the company's total income. This will maximize the relative power of our branches and make for more winnable campaigns in a shorter time frame. Those wins will result in more members with greater organizing experience and higher morale. It might also reduce organizer burnout by giving us more victories to restore our spirits in the short term.

Of course, gains in smaller companies will be limited by the conditions in the industry which are mostly set by industry leaders. We'll have to explain this to the workers we organize and turn them into organizers dedicated to organizing their whole industry. The small shops will provide us with a larger base and more concrete examples to work from as we turn to organizing larger companies in those industries.

Originally appeared in the September 2008 Industrial Worker

Industrial Unionism is the IWW Strategy

Patrick B replies to Nate Hawthorne's 'Forget Industrial Power'.

While I don't think the Industrial Worker is the proper forum for debate over organizing strategy, the readers of the IW should be offered an alternative view to that presented by the September 2008 IW article entitled “Forget Industrial Power,” by Fellow Worker Nate H. In the article he argues that the IWW should avoid placing organizing efforts in large companies because of our relative weak position and that organizing large companies is likely to create failure and burnout for our organizers.

The main disagreement I have with the argument is that it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more we believe we can't do something, the more that becomes a reality. We have refused to take on large targets for over 40 years. As a result we have grown little. It was only when the IWW took on Borders in 1996 and Starbucks in 2004, both large companies, that we saw significant increases in membership and activity.

Furthermore, the argument is grounded in circular logic. Acquiring big resources only comes after we take on big targets. It is tantamount to saying “we need resources to organize big targets, but we can't get resources until we organize big targets.” We've been saying this for decades. Where has it gotten us?

The early IWW was not afraid of any targets. They took on companies and industries thousands of times larger (review the copper mine organizing in Arizona or the Textile companies in New England for example) than their membership and made not only changes for the workers of the industry but also for the labor movement as a whole.

The article further contends that we should focus our organizer recruitment at the small workplaces of our current membership. The problem with this argument is that it assumes we would not acquire organizers at large targets, which is, of course, likely. IWW-style

organizing anywhere creates new organizers out of workers. The argument also completely ignores the good possibility that the quality of the organizers recruited from large targets may be better. Because of the larger size, there is a larger pool of talent to draw from. He also believes we should focus on small companies instead of big ones. The grounding for this is that we could potentially build enough power on the backs of small capitalists to eventually fight the large businessmen. While I agree with FW H that we should not solely focus on large companies, I think focusing on small ones is just as problematic, and may even require more time and energy than a large company and may be more prone to failure.

Businesses act in predictable ways if the basic economic laws are given consideration. Occasionally these laws are broken, or a business owner will act irrationally, or outside agencies (i.e. Government) will interfere with economic laws, but the vast majority of businesses comply and therefore act predictably to internal and external pressures (labor rebellion, etc.). If we apply the pressure of unionism to small companies than we should be able to predict, given a long enough time frame, the effects on the company, the industry, or the economy as a whole.

Instead of providing power for the IWW, organizing small companies is likely to lead to eventual weakening of our union. Smaller companies are required to compete with the big companies, who set industrial standards, to survive. Any hindrance to this is likely to either limit what we can gain from employers or entirely push the small shops out of business. The larger companies will acquire the customer-base left by the exterminated businesses, the Wobblies will be out of work, and capitalism's wheels keep on turning. The amount of real economic pressure we could apply to small businesses is therefore very little.

Organizing small companies is a bigger drain on resources. Even the big business unions, with extensive resources, have had trouble organizing the little shops. They are just too hard to organize.

However, I will not argue that the best alternative is organizing one large company either. On a long enough timeline, the end result of focusing on one large company will reflect that of the smaller ones (look at the Teamster organizing in the Nineties). Large companies can go out of business like any other and when they do, their competitors in the industry will assume their former market share.

What's the alternative? The answer to the problem of limited resources, unemployment prevention, and organizer burnout is to organize industrially. By organizing industrially, we have a large pool of talent to draw from that is often limited in both small and some large companies. We can choose where in the industry to place emphasis to prevent firings and ensure negotiating leverage.

Moreover, taking on an entire industry eliminates the ubiquitous problem in small companies of high turnover. Turnover creates extra stress for organizers and affords little negotiating leverage to the workers. When the pros and cons are carefully considered, organizing industrially is actually much more likely to yield success with less effort than organizing small companies or single large companies. While the endeavor may seem intimidating, industrial strategy is easier and more appropriate for our current resources.

Often times, there is a tendency to fear big targets because of the size of the employment is intimidating. I used to think this way. But a close friend and fellow worker once told me I was looking at it from a “glass-is-half-empty” point of view. He said, Don't think of all those workers as a barrier, think of it as an opportunity.

A workplace or local industry of 1000 workers should not be viewed as “1000 members until success,” but rather “this industry offers us potentially 1000 new members.” That optimism never left me. I think if it was adopted by more Wobblies, we would grow significantly.

Originally appeared in October 2008 Industrial Worker

Response to Fellow Worker B

Nate Hawthorne's reply to PatrickB's response to an earlier column.

I thank FW B for taking the time to reply to my column. I disagree with FW B that the Industrial worker is not a proper forum for debate over organizing strategy. That's the biggest disagreement we have, I think.

I argued that we should focus on small targets, because we can have more victories at small targets because our branches are bigger relative to small companies. That way we can win things more quickly and make more organizers by having inspiring victories. I think inspiring victories are important for making organizers, and making more organizers is one of the three most important tasks facing the IWW right now. (The other two are retaining organizers and getting better at organizing.)

The heart of my column, the bit I feel most strongly about, is this pair of sentences: “Our first priority right now should be to have members improve their own lives at work and to recruit other organizers out of our co-workers. That will build our pool of committed, capable organizers so that we can eventually have really enormous impacts for our whole class.” I think FW B and I agree on this.

FW B points out that this can also be done by targeting big companies and industry-wide campaigns. He points to the Starbucks campaign as an example. The Starbucks campaign is important and impressive. It's made more organizers for our union and that's awesome. FW B is absolutely right and this is a gap in my column's argument.

All of that said, I still think that a new GMB that is looking for a first organizing target is better off trying to organize a smaller shop. The smaller the shop, the less resources management has to dump into union-busting and the more of their business we can shut down with pickets and other actions given our currently small numbers.

Let me put it this way. Let's say hypothetically that three new branches form in three different counties in the great state of Minnesota and they host a joint organizer training. One says “we have a member who works at Wal-Mart so we're targeting all the Wal-Marts in our county.” The second says “we have a member who works at a local magnet factory with 50 workers so we're targeting that.” The third says “we haven't made up our mind yet - we have Walmarts here and we have a magnet factory with 50 workers, and we have one member at each.”

If someone from the third branch asked my advice, I would urge them to follow the lead of the second branch, not the first. I would wish the first branch nothing but success and they would certainly deserve support. But would I predict that at least in the short term the second branch is more likely to succeed and to have more of the victories necessary for sustaining organizers.

Of course, I would be happy to be proven wrong by more victories and organizer recruitment within really big campaigns.

Originally appeared in the October 2008 Industrial Worker

Pinchpoint target

A column by Nate Hawthorne, arguing against the IWW presently prioritizing what some see as key industries.

Some people think the IWW should pour all of its resources into organizing in an industry which is particularly important to the economy, to maximize our impact on capitalism--I call this the “Pinchpoint Target” idea.

Pinchpoint Target is the idea that there's one key sector or a few key sectors of the economy where organized workers could shut down capitalism. This means workers in that sector or sectors have a certain level of objective power, at least potentially. For instance, if every dockworker in the United States went on strike the global economy would stop. Dockworker strikes stop an incredibly valuable amount of machinery and goods. Every minute of the strike costs the bosses of the world a great deal of money. This analysis is correct. It does not mean that the IWW should focus only organizing dockworkers.

The problem with Pinchpoint Target is that it takes a correct objective analysis of the economy--some sectors are more important to the global economy than others--and argues that the analysis should dictate organizational strategy. The mistake is that Pinchpoint Target says that we'll organize that key sector or sectors and then be able to end capitalism. That is, the idea is that workers in that sectors or sectors will lead the charge for everyone else.

There are at least three problems with this idea. One is that workers in other industries need unions too because their jobs also suck. Some of those workers are currently IWW members and not all of them can change jobs to some key industry. The IWW needs to support and train and develop those members too. To do otherwise would be undemocratic.

A second problem is that the current level of training, experience, and dedication in the union is insufficient. The procedures for educating news members and developing a sense of Wobbly culture and community need to be better. I don't mean to put down the hard work of my fellow workers. I simply think that we still have a lot of work to do in this area. If we're talking about key sectors where we want to not only build unions but push forward revolutionary transformation then we will face tremendous repression. We have to be prepared for this repression. That means we have to develop better networks of solidarity and union infrastructure and a stronger Wobbly culture. The union busting we face when we organize image conscious restaurant chains or in the public sector is nowhere near as fierce as in manufacturing. We still have a hard time handling this in our campaigns. If we organize dockworkers or oil refinery workers the union busting we face will be much more intense than anything we have seen before. We need to get better at winning smaller campaigns in less important sectors of the economy before we charge up the mountain.

The level of repression which workers in pinchpoint industry face is an argument for not prioritizing those sectors for another reason. If workers in those industries are isolated, they will be more easily defeated. If organization and revolutionary consciousness is spread throughout the working class across different sectors then we will have a better chance at defeating that repression. If it's not, then the struggles in the pinchpoint sector or sectors will be more likely to lose--and the workers in other sectors may be less likely to unite with the workers in the pinchpoint sectors.

The experience of class struggle on the job can have a radicalizing effect. I've argued that we should organize in a way that maximizes this effect. This is important to counteract divisions between parts of our class. More important sectors of the economy are more likely to be well paid, and one response to major unrest is to improve conditions. The difference in income between the pinchpoint and nonpinchpoint workers can lead workers in the non-pinchpoint sectors to be less disposed toward solidarity.

I want to close by saying that the Pinchpoint Target is motivated by a sense of urgency. The idea is that prioritizing one sector or some key sectors will move the abolition of the wage system along faster. That's a worthwhile goal and that impatience is totally understandable. The world is a bad place in many ways and it needs to change. I'm not convinced that the Pinchpoint Target will help us, but I respect and share the sense of urgency of the fellow workers who hold to this idea.

- Nate Hawthorne

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2008)