Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)

Articles from the January/February 2014 issue of the Industrial Worker.

Contractualism should be avoided

A reply to an article that appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper, titled 'The contract as a tactic'.

This is in response to FW Matt Muchowski’s article titled “The Contract As A Tactic,” which appeared on page 4 of the December 2013 Industrial Worker. While I disagree with most of it, this piece is the most coherent justification of contractualism for the IWW I’ve seen. The reasons behind going for a contract are very rarely talked about in this way, so the article is worth taking seriously and considering the author’s points.

FW Muchowski correctly asserts that the IWW has a legacy of no contracts; however, he attributes this to the lack of “legal structure(s) for unions to win legal recognition. On IWW.org, a similar explanation is given. This explanation is wrong, though. The IWW’s views on contracts have always been more sophisticated than what the labor law of the day has been. Overall, contracts have been regarded with great suspicion. This has had little to do with the existence of “legal structures” (most of which we were against or critical of) and more to do with an analysis of what contractualism would lead to.

The author then goes on to blame the disintegrating presence of the IWW in Lawrence after the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike on not having a contract. This is usually what anti-Wobbly liberal and Communist Party-sympathetic labor historians say, so it’s a little surprising to see this opinion expressed in the IW. It’s also an absolutely inadequate explanation of what happened. If the ongoing presence of the IWW so relied on having a formal, legal contract with the employers, then how could Local 8—the IWW dockworkers of Philadelphia who went on strike in May 1913—exist? Local 8, for most of its era, operated without a contract. The difference between Local 8 and the textile strikers in Lawrence, however, was one of organization. The Lawrence model was to throw a supporting cast of organizers into a situation that was already on the verge of blowing up; it was a “hot shop,” in other words. Local 8, on the other hand, built an organization with a purpose and from the ground up.

Local 8, along with many other noncontractual models, offers an antidote to the false and seemingly dishonest dichotomy that is often set up when talking about this issue, which is contractualism versus all-out revolution. No one who argues against or is suspicious of formal, legal agreements with employers is necessarily drawing up blueprints for the barricades.

Similarly, Muchowski frames anticontractualism as “ideological” while what he advocates is not. Suggesting that a position is “ideological” and therefore extreme or irrational is a common rhetorical trick in politics, and it works well as it appeals to what is assumed to be “common sense.” But just because it’s a neat and effective trick does not mean that what it is expressing is true. The use of ideology, or examples of it, as a swear word, means that it is something that is based on beliefs rather than reality or experience. But being against or suspicious of contractualism is not merely “ideological.” It has a long history in the radical labor movement, full of examples and historical lineage. Contractualism, on the other hand, has only hypothetical scenarios and “what if” possibilities, divorced from any concrete reality

Solidarity unionism, for example, can be traced all the way back to the old IWW, through the rank-and-file members of militant Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) locals, to labor radicals like Martin Glaberman and Stan Weir (who saw clearly the downside of contractualism), on through the New Left labor history revisionists who rejected the institutional and top-down accounts of labor movements, and finally to the numerous conversations that resulted in the modern-day IWW creating our own model of what solidarity unionism could be. Arguments for contractualism have no similar basis rooted in actual experiences of radical labor.

Many of the activities and tasks the article lists as being possible with a contract are not inherent to that model. Spreading our views, finding out our co-workers’ issues and building for demands are just a part of organizing and happens in every IWW campaign worth its salt.

Lastly, FW Muchowski addresses the problematic issue of limitations placed on the union in contracts. His solution to this is “we don’t have to agree to anything we don’t want to.” But a century of contractualism has established no-strike clauses, management rights clauses and disempowering grievance procedures as the norms. I would argue that after the point in which it is obvious the union has won or is going to win, these are the most important issues for the employer, exceeding wages and benefits. To exclude these things in a contract would take serious organization within the workplace. If you do have the capacity to impose these sorts of demands, which are expected minimum norms for contracts, then why have a contract at all? With that type of power we can have the ability to impose a lot without getting caught up in state-enforced limitations.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)

All in a day’s work: life and labor in the day labor industry

An article by Everett Martinez about the day labor industry in the construction trades.

Whether it means the arduous toil of building a house or the technical knowhow required to unclog a home septic system, “day labor” is the catch-all term for an industry defined by its instability, unreliability and illegality for those who work in it. A thick veil of myths, misinformation and racism distorts the public’s understanding of day labor and inhibit the ability of labor organizers to extend solidarity to this alarmingly vulnerable segment of the working class.

I work for a small construction company in northern New Jersey. Both the company I work for and the companies we find ourselves partnering with—whose areas of work cover everything from construction to logging, landscaping, plumbing, etc.—use day labor as their main, if not only, source of labor. This article is intended to share my observations on the nature of work in the day labor industry, the relationship between laborers and their employers, and the possibilities for helping laborers to organize themselves. Hopefully this information will enable us as comrades of day laborers to provide them with the solidarity and working-class unity they deserve.

The Working Day

Perhaps the most pervasive myth about day labor is that a laborer works for different employers every day. We tend to imagine day laborers as waiting outside of Home Depot for an employer who picks up whoever happens to be standing outside at the time. In my experience, nothing has been further from the truth: most laborers are employed by the same employer consistently, often working for the same one for years at a time.

Employment occurs on a job-by-job basis. A laborer and an employer will be in contact with each other, and the employer will contact the laborer whenever work is needed. As the term suggests, the worker is employed by day; at the end of one working day, the employer will tell the worker to be at the employer’s shop, or the employer will arrange a certain meeting place at a certain time the next day. Laborers are paid in cash at the end of each day—in my experience, laborers are paid around $10 to $12 per hour.

John Smith Plumbing Company, for instance—our obviously fictitious company— will get a call to unclog a family’s drain. In turn, the owner of John Smith Plumbing will call the laborer(s) he employs and arrange a time and place to pick them up. The employer drives the laborers to the job and work begins.

The main buyers of day labor are small businesses, which are most of the time owned and operated by a single person. John Smith Plumbing is owned by John Smith, who is the company’s only permanent member. He is the president, treasurer, advertiser and hiring department. He owns all of the plumbing equipment as his personal property, handles all of the advertising and networking, and in general undertakes all the administrative functions of the company.

From the standpoint of the law, John Smith is selfemployed. He does not report his day laborers as employees. Thus, even though they’re employed by the same employer every day, just as someone who works at Dunkin’ Donuts is employed by Dunkin’ Donuts every day, laborers employed by John Smith enjoy no long-term benefits. There is no paid time off available to accrue after a certain period of employment, no health care coverage, and no chance for more stable employment. Moreover, if a laborer calls in sick, it is very likely that the laborer will not be called back by that employer in the future. Ironically, employers view these workers as “unreliable.”

Since the construction industries, unlike the food industry, have not been centralized into the hands of multinational corporations, any number of these neighborhood companies will be operating in the same general area. In the age of globalization and the movement of manufacturing and manual labor out of the West, this local, decentralized and labor-intensive industry is an interesting divergence from the industries Western labor organizers are used to organizing.

Laborers & Employers

One of the strangest dynamics of day labor is the incredibly casual nature of the relationship between day laborers and employers. This is not to say that day labor is not hard work or that day laborers are “friends” with their employers. Rather, the relationship between a laborer and his employer is marked by the employer undertaking tasks formal employers never do.

I have personally never witnessed an employer hire more than four laborers in one job, meaning that employers don’t communicate with their laborers as “line bosses” charged with measuring the productivity and discipline of a large workforce. On the other hand, the dynamic is much more personal: on the way from one job to the next there are personal conversations, the car radio will be on, etc. The employer and the laborer(s) usually eat meals together—the length of the workday usually includes both breakfast and lunch—and the employer will usually buy one of the meals for his laborer. Additionally, the employer often charges himself with buying personal equipment for his laborers: work gloves, boots and the like.

These seemingly benevolent gestures, taken in the context of a seemingly personal employer-employee relationship, may hinder organizing. During unionization campaigns, we often see employers try to manipulate these sorts of things: “we’re a mom-and-pop company,” “employees are part of the company,” etc.

Day Labor: No Place in the Business Union?

The common portrayal of the day laborer is that of an undocumented Latino man, usually speaking little English, who often has a family to support. In my experience, this is by no means inaccurate; all day laborers I’ve worked with are indeed Latino men who speak little English. I can’t comment on their citizenship status but I would be inclined to assume most are not documented due to the under-the-table, undocumented nature of day labor, including the fact that employers do not report them as employees. Obviously, it is safe to assume that if day laborers had the opportunity to move to more formal, regulated employment, employers would report them as employees. One can only assume, then, that they do not have this opportunity, presumably due to their citizenship status.

The extreme vulnerability of being an undocumented worker is heightened by the mainstream labor movement’s disinterest (or inability) in helping them organize themselves. Despite the necessity of day labor to keeping our society’s infrastructure intact, a variety of factors have caused the modern labor movement to pass over the day labor industry as a potential for organizing efforts.

Day laborers have no avenue of recourse if they are victimized by their employer. Imagine that you were in this country illegally. Would you trust a government institution like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to properly defend you against wage theft? In fact, would you even know of the NLRB, of labor laws in this country, and of how to exercise these rights? Would you trust that, upon reporting your employer to the NLRB, the NLRB wouldn’t just have you and your family deported?

When day laborers do not organize themselves, employers have total power over the conditions of laborers’ work. There is no record that a day laborer ever worked for an employer, and the employer knows a laborer will not report illegal practices. What, then, does an individual laborer do if the employer simply decides not to pay him at the end of the day? What does a laborer do if the employer pays him below minimum wage? Do laborers new to the country even know minimum wage laws for their state? What does a laborer do if the employer forces laborers to use dangerous machinery without properly instructing them how to use it or without providing them with necessary safety equipment?

Conclusion: Potentials for Solidarity Unionism

Day labor is not conventional labor, but the IWW is certainly not a conventional union. If we are interested in helping day laborers to organize themselves, we must adopt innovative and creative tactics to respond to the unique challenges of the industry.

The first key problem is the lack of a definable workforce. As previously stated, most companies employ no more than four laborers at a time, and these laborers are not even officially employed with the company. If an individual laborer, or even a small group of them, were to refuse unsafe or unfair working conditions, the employer can easily replace them. There is no shortage of day labor, and there is no process the employer must initiate to fire a day laborer beyond not calling them back. Thus, day labor must be organized geographically, not by employer. If all the day laborers in a given area refused to work for, say, under $10 per hour, an employer would have virtually no choice but to concede. This, I believe, is where the General Membership Branch and industrial structure of the IWW would be most effectively instituted.

Secondly, due to the state’s open hostility to undocumented peoples, attempts to force concessions from employers cannot rely on state mechanisms like the NLRB. This is perhaps where the nature of day labor can be used to the laborers’ advantage: most day labor jobs are based in the construction and infrastructure industries, and these jobs have tight deadlines. You have to dig a foundation in 10 days, you have to unclog a person’s drain in an hour, etc. The employer has no time to deal with laborers refusing work. If they refuse work, the job doesn’t get done. If the job doesn’t get done, the company gets taken off the job, and the employer doesn’t get paid.

The urgency of the work can be used as a weapon against the employer. Imagine this scenario: John Smith of John Smith Plumbing gets a call to unclog a family’s drain. He drives himself and one laborer to the house to begin fixing the drain. In the past, John Smith has underpaid his laborers, making excuses like, “You didn’t work hard enough today so I’m only going to give you $80 instead of our agreed-upon $120.” The laborer John Smith brought along has been the victim of this but has stayed with Smith due to the lack of work. When John Smith and his laborer get to the drain call, the laborer refuses to leave the truck until Smith pays him $200 he owes in sto-len wages. Every minute wasted by this work refusal is a minute the customer has to pay for, and if the customer sees no work is being done, the customer will easily just take John Smith Plumbing off the job and call another company. Moreover, Smith and his laborer are already at the job site; Smith doesn’t have time to find another laborer—that may take hours, and by that time the customer will have definitely found another draincleaning service.

If a geographical network of day laborers was established, there would be little need for contracts or legal interventions— workers’ power could be expressed on the job through economic actions.

All in all, the day labor industry is an industry which would be a unique challenge to organize, but it is an industry in which the IWW’s model of organizing would thrive. As a worker employed alongside day laborers, it would seem to me as though day laborers’ only hope for winning better working conditions is through the solidarity-based approach to unionism and work-place justice provided by the IWW. It would be a serious betrayal to our undocumented, hyper-exploited, and hyper-vulnerable comrades in the day labor industry if we did not offer them our full support and solidarity. I offer these observations in hopes that they will persuade my fellow workers to take an interest in the struggles of day laborers in their areas.

Everett Martinez is a Wobbly employed in the lumber and construction industries, and is part of the current initiative to build a strong IWW presence in New Jersey. She can be contacted at iww. nnj@gmail.com.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)

Sick to myself

An account by Scott Nappalos about calling in sick.

1 a.m… 3:50... 3:55... 4 a.m. I rise from bed bleary-eyed. Standing makes me cough. “Great a new symptom,” I think to myself. Walking to the bathroom, the day before me goes through my head. Pacing down the halls, lifting patients, comforting families, dealing with managers; the flood of images makes me weary. I remember days I worked while sick, greeting a patient while gently trying to hold the snot from running down my face, ducking out of a room to sneeze, sitting heavy on the toilet to let my body rest. You read lab values through a tired haze and hide hot tea with honey on the computer carts to make your voice less monstrous. Working sick assails you. I can imagine my day, and it isn’t pretty.

Clear mucous runs across my lip.

“What about my co-workers? Will enough people be there? Will they have miserable days because I’m awake at 4 a.m. with a cold?”

The night before I had waffled about whether to call in or not. The consequences of calling out stick with you.

“What happened? You been out drinking?”

“Remember call out three times in six months and it’s a write-up.”

At other hospitals I worked in you would be yelled at, disciplined, suspended, or even fired for calling in sick. The bosses made it very clear that being sick was a transgression. When you worked shortstaffed from others calling in, you felt it too.

Working short-staffed with no sympathy from anyone, we were alone with our curses too often.

“I bet he called out because he’s drunk.”

“She’s always calling out, especially on the weekends.”

Nurses frequently would blame each other for our misery, shortstaffed from someone falling ill. The worse it got at work, the more call-outs there are. Even an anarchist like myself internalized this. I felt guilty for being sick, and it seemed like I was imposing the extra work on my tired co-workers.

The problem is that illness is part of the game. Health care workers are exposed to more illness, and experience extreme working conditions and the long-term stress that wears down the immune system. The results are predictable. People will get sick. In many hospitals, however, sick time was eliminated and replaced with general comp time, a.k.a. rolling sick days and vacation into one category that constantly pushes people to work while sick. The real issue is that management can see the numbers and knows how many people will be sick yearly, and yet refuses to hire enough people to take that pressure off us to work with a bug.

This is in spite of the fact that countless studies show health care workers spreading potentially fatal illnesses to patients in hospitals. It’s not complicated if you think about it. Many viruses are spread by droplets in our breath or our body secretions. Well-meaning health care workers have a hard time avoiding coughing, sneezing, blowing their noses, or rubbing something they shouldn’t rub when under the gun. You wash your hands constantly, but all it takes is one little slip to spread things to patients. Illnesses spread by health care workers remains a significant cause of serious illness and death in hospitals and care facilities.

The problem runs deeper than just money or punishments. Working at a place with paid sick days and lacking a culture of punishing those who call in sick, many of us still blame ourselves for the situation at work. Today we are repressed more by our own internalization of power than by force. That is what we have to fight against. The problem isn’t in us as individuals, or the fact that life makes us sick sometimes. The problem is a system constantly pressuring all hospitals to meet its challenges with our bodies and those of our patients. Work runs like clockwork, but it is a machine built out of human bodies; bodies that are vulnerable. An answer isn’t completely obvious, but any solution we will find will be collective; working together to use our power for something more human.

At 4:05 a.m., I called in sick.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)

A look at late 19th century French socialist thought

A review by Heath Row of the book The Anarchism of Jean Grave: Editor, Journalist, and Militant.

Patsouras, Louis. The Anarchism of Jean Grave: Editor, Journalist, and Militant. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2003. Paperback, 207 pages, $24.99.

Louis Patsouras, formerly a history professor at Kent State University and the author of two previous books about the French anarchist and socialist, is perhaps the primary booster of Jean Grave, an otherwise unsung compatriot of Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Elisee Reclus. Having penned several relatively slim volumes about the editor of La Revolte and Les Temps Nouveaux; including the 1978 “Jean Grave and French Anarchism,” the 1995 “Jean Grave and the Anarchist Tradition in France,” and this now decadeold largely biographical book; Patsouras has done much to keep the memory of Grave’s life and work alive—even if very little of Grave’s writing is available in English translation.

One of few prominent socialist thinkers born into a working-class family, Grave was the son of a miller who later turned shoemaker. Moving to Paris in 1860, Grave went to Catholic school and apprenticed with master workmen before getting involved with the professionally oriented revolutionary Blanquists and the Paris Commune. After the fall of the Commune, Grave became involved in an anarchist group, helped form the Social Study Group, and became more involved in anarcho-communist journalism and propaganda, as well as propaganda by deed.

In 1883, Grave became the editor of La Revolte, which had been founded by Kropotkin in 1879. Grave saw the widely influential paper through the introduction of a literary supplement that became embroiled in an intellectual property dispute as the result of republishing writers’ works without paying them and a name change to La Revolte before he was imprisoned for inciting mutiny and violence through his writings. The editor was also a principal in the Trial of the Thirty, which targeted criminals and terrorists as well as political activists, conflating propaganda by deed with the political philosophies that inspired it.

Upon his release from jail, Grave founded a new weekly, Les Temps Nouveaux. With the help of contributors such as Kropotkin and Reclus, Grave’s journalism and pamphleteering continued to advocate for anarcho-syndicalism and mutual aid in opposition to individualism until World War I, during which he emerged to the surprise of many as prowar. The prolific but heavily censored scribe contended that the primary issue was not war per se, but foreign domination, which should be fought. Grave was also anti-communist.

In addition to offering a laudable biographical sketch of Grave, Patsouras considers the French anarchist’s support of progressive art and literature as well as politics; the utopian underpinnings of his work; parallels to bourgeois contemporaries, as well as later writers such as Simone Weil, Albert Camus, and Jean- Paul Sartre; and his ongoing relevance in the current day. The last six chapters of the text, which largely provide contextualization rather than biographical detail, feel a little disjointed and ill-fitting. Regardless, it is incontestable that the work of Grave still has value, and the book is worth reading for the first 10 chapters alone.

This book, along with Patsouras’s preceding efforts, is important, but inadequate to fully shed light on Grave’s thoughts, ideals, and contributions to later anarcho-syndicalist discourse. What’s sorely needed are English translations of Grave’s writings as primary source: the memoir “Quarante ans de propagande anarchiste,” the novel “La Grande famille,” the propaganda by deed primer “Organisation de la propagande revolutionnaire,” and the theoretical text “La Societe mourante et l’anarchie.” Shawn P. Wilbur’s recently inactive blog “Working Translations” offers a partial translation of Grave’s fiction for children “The Adventures of Nono,” and Robert Graham’s “Anarchism Weblog” provides excerpts from “La Societe mourante et l’anarchie,” but full-text translations appear to be unavailable.

Fellow Wobblies: Who’s up to the task of translating these materials?

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)