2013

Industrial Worker (January/February 2013)

Articles from the January/February 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

Planks for a platform and a few words about organizing - Staughton Lynd

An article by Staughton Lynd on specific practices and contract clauses that he thinks Wobblies should support.

This is the last in a series of reflections on the IWW approach to workers whom it hopes to “organize.”

The first point is that history offers inadequate formulations of what the IWW is all about.

The formulation embodied in the name and in the Preamble to the 1905 IWW Constitution is that the IWW is an association of “industrial” rather than “craft” unionists. As I have argued, the 1930s proved the inadequacy of this perspective. John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers (UMW), was an autocratic president of an industrial union and passionately repressed radicals. As principal founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Lewis sponsored the creation of a series of top-down unions in the rubber, automobile, steel, meatpacking and other industries. The Lewis model for CIO unions insisted that one union represent all the workers in a particular industry, and that the employer deduct union dues from their paychecks.

Within and without the UMW, Lewis also pushed a particular sort of union contract that included two clauses much desired by management: a clause prohibiting strikes and other disruptions of production during the life of the contract and a “management prerogatives” clause giving the employer the legal right to make all the big decisions about a workplace. Such a contract put in the hands of the employer sole authority to decide what the enterprise should produce, how many workers it needed and, above all, whether, over time, the enterprise should receive new capital investment and expand, or be shut down.

A contract that gives the boss the authority to make the big decisions and prevents workers from doing anything about those decisions by stopping work is not a contract to which any worker should ever consent. Almost every CIO contract contained (and contains today) both a no-strike and a management prerogatives clause. Wobblies were critical of such contracts and obtained the reputation of opposing all written agreements.

The point, however, was not that it is always wrong to write down an agreement, but, rather, that the agreements typical of unionism in the United States routinely contain curtailments of vital workers’ rights. It is the substance of these contracts, not the fact of a written contract, which the IWW and its members have rightly protested.

So, when a fellow worker asks, “What are you guys for, anyhow?” neither the idea of industrial unionism nor a critique of “workplace contractualism” really answers the question. The imaginary dialogue might go like this:

A fellow worker asks a Wob, “So what are you people all about?”

The Wob pulls out a copy of the paper and points to the Preamble on page 3.

His colleague says, “Yeah, I like the spirit of the thing, but we got an industrial union, and it stinks.”

Frustrated, the Wob responds: “Well, we don’t sign contracts.”

Fellow worker says: “In the first place, I heard about an IWW local across town that did sign a contract. And in the second place, isn’t it really a question of what’s in the contract, not whether you write stuff down?”

I am not a member of the IWW and am only a single voice. Obviously, it should be you, not I, who answer these critical and legitimate questions. An important beginning that I notice in the December 2012 Industrial Worker is that, in place of the Preamble written 107 years ago, you have set forth a new statement of principles. It is well-drafted and persuasive. Congratulations!

But I think it might also assist that inquisitive fellow worker if there were a set of specific practices and contract clauses that Wobblies could be expected to support. Here are some possible “planks” for such a “platform.” (I rather like this figure of speech. One takes one’s stand on a platform. It is solid, supportive. Planks are required to give it substance):

1. Above all, every individual worker and every group of workers must retain the right to stop work at any time. Nothing in the Wagner Act, the law that applies to an ordinary private sector workplace, requires a no-strike clause. Beginning with the first CIO contracts in 1937, unions have voluntarily surrendered this essential right for the life of the contract.

2. Contract clauses that prohibit strikes have also been interpreted to prohibit slowing work down. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) does not protect slowdowns. However, slowdowns are essential and workers must struggle to promote and protect this critical practice.

3. Working to rule (for instance, doing everything directed by the company safety manual in a dumb-bunny manner) is an important tool. The late Jerry Tucker made a valuable contribution with his inplant efforts at the Staley corn processing plant in the early 1990s and elsewhere. Remember, however, that Staley also proved that working to rule can be checkmated by a lockout.

4. Wobs need to develop an egalitarian approach to layoffs that protects what Stan Weir called “the family at work,” or more simply, solidarity. We should abandon a mechanical application of seniority in layoff situations that may have the result that older workers (often white and male) not only continue to work full time but may even work overtime, while newer hires (often minority and/or female) are put on the street with nothing.

5. Internationalism is a very serious matter. The Farmworkers under César Chávez informed the federal government of undocumented immigrants from Mexico so as to protect the jobs of Mexican Americans already in the United States. Teamsters and Steelworkers were in Seattle in 1999 so that Teamsters could oppose letting Mexican truck drivers across the Rio Grande, and Steelworkers could advocate, as they always do, a protective tariff on steel imports. We must work toward coordinated strike action that protects workers everywhere.

6. The American ruling class will export to other countries any form of work that is not, by its nature, tied to a particular location. The reason is simple: lower wages can be paid elsewhere. We need to re-conceptualize the centrality of “service” industries such as public employment, work in hospitals and retirement facilities, home nursing, and trucking. Such work is the heartbeat of a community, and includes the things that people voluntarily do for each other in moments of crisis like Hurricane Sandy.

7. In general, immigrants from Latin America and other “underdeveloped” parts of the world bring with them to the United States a more sophisticated and deep-seated practice of solidarity than that which exists among Anglos. All Wobs should learn Spanish.

8. There can never be a justification of two- and three-tier wage scales for the same work. We must champion the old, old principle of equal pay for equal work.

9. When a worker is summoned to the office of a supervisor, every effort must be made to make sure that one or more fellow workers accompany him or her. The NLRB has gone back and forth as to whether non-union workers possess this right as a matter of law. We must try to assert it in practice, regardless.

10. Self-evidently, everything said in the foregoing specific suggestions finds its ultimate rationale in the idea of solidarity. In my experience, this idea is enormously attractive for many workers. The workplace, where we are legally vulnerable and must abandon the rights of citizenship when we punch in, may paradoxically become the place and time where we most fully experience that another world is possible.

I will very briefly conclude by proposing that Wobs, individually and collectively, address the question: What does it mean to organize, to “be an organizer”? Yes, I know that Joe Hill wrote to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “Don’t mourn for me; organize.” But what did this wandering songwriter and casual laborer mean by the word “organize”? Not, I think, what the organizer who works for a modern trade union means. The organizer for a mainstream union checks in at the motel, convenes an underground meeting of informal shop-floor leaders, decides how best to recruit potential voters, stages a “going public” day when union supporters display buttons and pass out cards…and then, the day after the election, checks out of the motel and leaves town. If the election has been lost, the organizer leaves behind rank-and-file workers whose union sympathies have been made known to the employer and who are therefore vulnerable to retaliation.

This is not what we should mean by “organizing.” In fact, I believe it would be helpful to leave the word “organizing” to others, and to describe what we try to do with a word first used by Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador: “accompanying.” Accompanying means walking beside another person, each learning from the other.

It also means staying for a while. My wife and I have found that staying in one place for more than 35 years gives us an ability to be heard and to be useful. It helps, too, to come to a community with a skill to offer that other people feel that they need.

I won’t say any more about this here because it appears in a new book called “Accompanying,” published by PM Press in Oakland, Calif.

Solidarity forever!

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2013)

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Entering the majority

An article by Zac Smith comparing politics between Oklahoma and France.

Oklahoma and France are obviously at opposite ends of many spectrums. In Oklahoma, to be a socialist is to be regarded with curiosity and a little hostility, like a follower of an obscure, cultish religion. In France, it is no more eyebrow-raising to say, “I’m a socialist!” than it is in Oklahoma to say, “I’m a conservative!” Among the French, one never expects someone to say, “Then why don’t you move to Russia?” as a response.

Arriving in Paris last May, I was struck for the first time since reading “Das Kapital” with the sensation of being not entirely outside the political mainstream. Descending into the Métro, I saw an antipolice graffito signed with a hammer and sickle. On a subway car, I noticed a man reading Lenin’s “The State and Revolution.” He did not look like a student intellectual or a bohemian. On a train to Lille, my neighbor finding that I was American, delivered a long and complicated lecture on the principles of socialism, mostly designed to dispel the impression that socialism was synonymous with Stalinism, to which I listened patiently. This was all within the first few weeks following my arrival, and soon these things no longer seemed remarkable.

The moderate socialists I met in France had something in common with our conservatives. They displayed a casual openness about their beliefs. Even members of the Parti Communiste—a small group relative to the far more conservative Parti Socialiste— explained themselves in this easy, frank way.

Even the most confident and well-read American socialists have to declare their beliefs knowing that, likely as not, they’ll be met with a stream of wildly misinformed objections. In this environment it becomes common practice to express one’s views in a way that anticipates these objections and attempts to head them off. It is a rare person who can, having grown up in the United States, publicly express a belief in socialism without some degree of defensiveness.

However, in France the chaussure is on the other foot. One of the very few French Protestants I met, a very neatlygroomed student with whom I had lunch in a Vichy café, explained his views to me in the same defensive, uncomfortable manner common to American leftists. He was a supporter of the Front National, a major right-wing party whose platform revolves around blaming Muslim immigrants for all of society’s problems. He hastened to explain to me that Muslims make up the majority of France’s prison population and that the Front National had achieved a strong 20 percent in the last presidential election. Of course, in Oklahoma, no Republican would feel the need to follow up “I’m a Republican!” with “also, a conservative Republican candidate got 48 percent in the last election!”

It’s clear which attitude conveys a more appealing impression. Maybe then, as difficult as it may be to listen to the same ridiculous objections unfold over and over without interrupting, it is necessary to establish a relationship that is not adversarial.

Those of us who were not born into a radical household must remember the mistaken ideas we had before we discovered socialism. Just a few years ago, I believed that communism meant totalitarianism and, for some reason, that Marx and Lenin were contemporaries. In order to reach out to members of the mainstream we must engage them patiently, remembering that even though we may have heard their objections with monotonous regularity, it may be the first time they have had a chance to voice them.

We who wish to grow to a majority could benefit from carrying ourselves as if we already had.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2013)

Reviews: “Singlejack Solidarity” teaches valuable lessons for the working class

Patrick McGuire's review of Stan Weir's book, Singlejack Solidarity.

Weir, Stan. Singlejack Solidarity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Paperback, 400 pages, $19.95.

There are a handful of books that I believe every Wobbly should read. Some, like Joyce Kornbluh’s “Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology,” do an amazing job capturing the history and culture of our union. Others, like Staughton Lynd’s “Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding The Labor Movement From Below,” explain the current shortcomings of the labor movement and point to a constructive way forward. After having recently finished Stan Weir’s “Singlejack Solidarity,” I think I need to add another book to my must-read list.

Stan Weir was a “blue-collar intellectual and activist publisher” who lived from 1921 to 2001. Weir worked as a seaman, auto-worker, Teamster, house painter, longshore worker and, finally, as a professor of labor and industrial relations. Throughout his career, Weir was a rank-and-file activist and had the fortune to participate in many important struggles that shaped the labor movement and the political left in the post-war United States. In short, he didn’t study working people from afar, but struggled with them. As a result, in his writings we find some of the best and most concrete ideas on “building the new society within the shell of the old” as developed by one of America’s finest organic intellectuals.

“Singlejack Solidarity” is a collection of Weir’s writings which span the period of 1967 to 1998 and cover a range of topics such as working-class culture, the influence of automation, the role of vanguard parties, primary work groups, and business unionism. George Lispitz of the University of California should be commended for editing such a useful book and making Stan Weir’s writings available to the public.

First off, the book takes its name from a term used by hard-rock miners in the American West. These miners worked in pairs to drill holes for dynamite. One worker would kneel and hold the steel drill while the other would swing the sledge hammer (or single jack). Work partners would often build up trust and friendships due to the skill and danger inherent to their work. Organizers in the Western Federation of Miners and the IWW started to use the term “singlejack” to refer to their way of organizing that emphasized slowly building one-on-one relationships. This wisdom still speaks to us today as we talk about “organizing the worker, not the workplace.” We want to develop union members who take the union with them to whatever workplace they may be in. We know that no campaign or job action can be won without face-to-face contact with our fellow workers.

The topic which looms largest in “Singlejack Solidarity” is the longshore industry in which Weir spent a key portion of his working life. Weir was active in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and had the benefit of working with many “‘34 men,” or workers who had participated in the great 1934 strike. From these workers, Weir learned the history of workers’ resistance in the longshore industry. Weir was most impressed by the dockworkers’ victory which eliminated the “shape-up” system, in which bosses hired workers for halfday shifts by making the workers stand around in circles on the dock. Longshore workers replaced the arbitrary “shape-up” with a union-run hiring hall that included a “low-man out” system which democratized shifts and workloads. For Weir, this is one of the most important examples of workers’ control in the history of American industry.

Weir also spends a great deal of time investigating the influence of “containerization” on the ports. He examines the ways in which a workplace that was once characterized by cooperative work teams (unloading the holds of ships) was broken apart and its workers atomized by increasing use of mechanization and the standardization of shipping containers. The role of the ILWU in only half-heartedly resisting this process is outlined in great detail, as Weir points out how the union was weakened by creating second-tier members, or “B-men.” These ideas should ring true for Wobblies today as we see the effects of two-tier wage schemes being agreed to in concession bargaining. As my own experience in a United Food and Commercial Workers shop has confirmed, these types of deals are corrosive to the solidarity which should be built in a union. Weir’s analysis of automation and technological change can also inform our understanding of how our workplaces are changing today. How is capital currently seeking to increase efficiency and profits at our expense? And, to follow Weir’s arguments, how can we best resist in order to “humanize the workplace”?

The true gem of this collection is Weir’s essay, “Unions With Leaders Who Stay on the Job,” and it is worth picking up “Singlejack Solidarity” for this essay alone. In it, Weir tells the inspiring story of how he participated in a workplace action while employed as a seaman in 1943. Weir and his fellow shipmates pulled a quickie strike where they refused to re-board their ship until better bedding, food, and supplies had been provided. From the reaction of the infuriated captain to the working-class education provided by the experienced sailors to the newest workers on board, this story is brimming with specifics on what direct action at the point of production can, and should, look like. And it also demonstrates how workers can get the goods without going through disempowering third parties. In fact, it is experiences such as this one which shape Weir’s critique of the labor movement due to its bureaucratization and timidness. The alternative which he lays out, of a democratic union movement which is based on the self-activity of the rank and file, is very much in line with the “solidarity unionism” approach which we have been building in the IWW.

The above are just a few of the topics discussed by Stan Weir in “Singlejack Solidarity.” He also recounts his experiences in and eventual disillusionment with various vanguard parties of the left as well as his friendships with such figures as James Baldwin and C.L.R. James. My only criticism of this book would be that there is significant overlap between the content of many of the selections (when you finish reading you will feel like you have a really good grasp on the longshore industry), but this can be forgiven because Weir never intended that these writings to be read as a collection and he wrote about what he knew best.

“Singlejack Solidarity” is exactly the type of practical, insightful and encouraging writing about working-class struggle that we need. It addresses some of the most important questions about how we organize and how to build a revolutionary labor movement which can abolish wage slavery. I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and pass it on to a fellow worker.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2013)

Industrial Worker (April 2013)

Articles from the April 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

Staughton Lynd responds to Counterpoint on “Planks”

Staughton Lynd's reply to Arthur J. Miller's response to "Planks".

Long live free speech and comradely disagreement! Rosa Luxemburg wrote from prison: “Freedom is always freedom for the one who thinks differently.”

However, sometimes there are misunderstandings that can be cleared away. I think I may not have made clear my two main points and that FW Miller may have misunderstood them in his response to my piece, “Planks For A Platform And A Few Words About Organizing,” titled “Counterpoint On ‘Planks For A Platform,’” which appeared on page 3 of the March IW.

First, I am not saying that industrial unions have been “corrupted.” I am saying that the 1905 Preamble assumes that if the labor movement can reorganize on a basis of industrial rather than craft unionism, the new industrial unions will practice solidarity, and that history has shown this assumption to be mistaken.

I offer the United Mine Workers as an example of an industrial union that was in many ways top-down and anything but radical in 1905, and became even less radical in the 1920s when John L. Lewis became its president. Lewis, as initiator of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), implanted in CIO contracts from the very beginning the key ideas of (1) a management prerogatives clause that gave management a free hand in making the big investment decisions, including closing a plant and moving capital overseas, and (2) promising not to strike during the duration of the contract, thus depriving workers of the opportunity to fight back.

An interesting sidebar to our discussion is that in those same years Lenin, in exile in Siberia, read the Webbs’ books on British trade unionism and concluded that conventional labor unions, left to their own devices, would not seek radical structural change. I suggest that his diagnosis was correct but his remedy, the vanguard party, was a disaster.

My second main point was that Wobs might help their fellow workers to understand what the IWW was up to if there were a list of particular practices and demands that the IWW advocated. Brother Miller agrees with most of them, but comments repeatedly “nothing new there” or “we have known this for a long time.” Of course. That’s the point. I offered a list—and there was nothing sacred about this particular list—of practices and demands that we know about but that fellow workers don’t necessarily understand that we advocate. I think having such a list to pass on to fellow workers might elicit the response, “Well, yeah, I agree with that. What else do you stand for?”

Finally, be fair. I didn’t and don’t ask anyone to define themselves as an “accompanyingist.” I said that the labor movement might accomplish more if, instead of trying to “organize” people we sought to “accompany” them, that is, to walk beside them, sharing ideas on a basis of equality.

Staughton Lynd, just an old retired historian and lawyer

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2013)

Reviews: a primer on anarcho-syndicalism for all to read

Lou Rinaldi reviews Solidarity Federation's Fighting For Ourselves: anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle.

Fighting For Ourselves: anarcho-syndicalism and the class struggle. London: Solidarity Federation and Freedom Press, 2012. Paperback, 124 pages, £6.

The new book from the U.K.-based anarcho-syndicalist group, Solidarity Federation (SolFed), is an excellent primer on anarcho-syndicalism for those interested in the subject. What SolFed has done is put together something concise and readable that isn’t clotted with jargon and slogans. While the IWW has never been an anarchist organization, SolFed’s form of syndicalism clearly takes influence from the IWW’s work developing a democratic union.

Bringing Our Politics Up To Date

The purpose of this text isn’t to give us a history lesson, necessarily, but to give us tools to analyze methods and practice and assess how well they worked. Solidarity Federation remarks early in the text that they are “not in search of blueprints but inspiration,” looking for a “revolutionary theory [that] keeps pace with practical realities and remains relevant [...] to our everyday lives.”

To many both in our milieus and out, unions, including revolutionary unions, are an anachronism of the Old Left and the failed workers movements of the past. But for SolFed, the important thing to remember is what has been effective, not for securing our place within the confines of capitalism, but to push beyond them and to not separate our revolutionary politics from our day-to-day organizing. For Wobblies in the shop, we soon find that we can’t hide who we are and be successful. We’re a revolutionary union and we want the abolition of the wage system. We don’t lead every situation with the black and red, but it informs why and how we organize the Wobbly way.

SolFed puts forth an analysis of the material conditions that existed previous to the present and how this has culminated into the crisis of today. They focus specifically on the casualization of labor since the late 1970s, and taking astute notes from the past, SolFed puts forward the idea of organizing not only on the shop floor but through grievance-based solidarity networks. Rather than have separate organizations, they believe we should do this work through our own unions. For the IWW, initiatives like this can be seen in the establishment of new commitments to industrial organization like the IWW’s Food and Retail Workers United. Efforts like this will hopefully open up opportunities not limited to a shop-by-shop approach, but a true union for all workers. In this respect SolFed’s book articulates theory and practice already being undertaken by some parts of our organization.

Our Organizing Is A Revolutionary Practice

One aspect I think is important in this book is its commitment to having politics. In particular, “Fighting For Ourselves” affirms that the practice of solidarity unionism is a commitment to having revolutionary politics. It is our revolutionary practice, and it is the historically most useful revolutionary practice of the workers’ movement.

In particular, SolFed advocates that the best aspect of an organization like a union is its associative rather than its representative function. This is one of the most useful political statements that we as a union can adopt. At its very core it means “we are the union,” but it goes beyond this into a broader political argument for shop-floor direct action as opposed to contract fights. For SolFed, and similar to the way the IWW has practiced unionism, the associative function of a union “is the means by which workers relate to one another.” SolFed describes this as the most basic way a union is formed: workers have power together, so they show solidarity together.

The other function, the representative function, is when unions become bureaucracies by which workers are represented to the boss. Their critique of this type of unionism is that it believes in the legitimacy of having a class-based society and it often waters down its politics to simply bread-and-butter issues without a larger social program. The IWW does neither.

Despite an almost nonstop critique of the IWW, from both Left groupings and the Right—that our failing has been not going for contracts—we can turn this into our strength and SolFed’s book helps us articulate this. They argue that an approach that emphasizes building the union into a representational organization, by mediating labor and management through a contract, actually hurts organizations’ ability to have active and militant memberships. It makes them reliant on bureaucracies and minimizes militancy to the contract. We’ve seen the results in the AFL-CIO. By joining together as workers, on the other hand, that push for a revolutionary politic in our everyday lives, we change the very dialogue on what a union can and should be. Furthermore, we become a more realistic organization, one that understands ebbs and flows of struggle, rather than a number-obsessed party-building union.

Recommended Reading

“Fighting For Ourselves” is a good read that IWW members should consider picking up. Perhaps what struck me the most about it was that despite some disagreements here or there, it presents a call to organize in accessible terms. It took complex systems and broke them down for me. It could potentially become a good educational tool for IWW members, because as we move forward as an organization we need to not just recruit members, we need to create Wobblies. As an organization this means we need to become a thinking organization that is not afraid to have political conversations.

“Fighting For Ourselves” is the type of book I would recommend as a follow-up to classics like Rudolph Rocker’s “Anarcho- Syndicalism: Theory and Practice.” I think the two would complement each other well in succession.

We should be taking in books like this, as well as other readings, and incorporating them into our educational and organizing practices. Printed materials like “Weakening the Dam,” “Direct Unionism,” and “Dismantling Capitalism, Dismantling Patriarchy,” should all be recommended reading for us. Wobblies should also be interested in learning about our history so that we can move forward. Check out “Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism” about the syndicalist movement worldwide, or “Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986.” We all know that you have to think before you act, and so we should.

“Fighting For Ourselves” is available from thoughtcrime ink, an IWW printing collective in Edmonton, Canada. Their website is http://thoughtcrimeink.com.

Industrial Worker (May 2013)

Articles from the May 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

Some notes on the Spanish situation

An article by José Luis Carretero Miramar on austerity in Spain and the response.

It is evident that the social situation in Spain has arisen in an uncontrollable dynamic. As a result of an unprecedented financial and economic crisis, the productive and social dismantling caused by the government’s Plans of Adjustment imposed on the population is reaching unsustainable levels.
The equation has been simple: the gigantic Spanish construction bubble, swollen at its base with private external debt by some extremely voracious financial entities, aligned with a political class that is a product of the reform without rupture of franquismo, of which consisted the so-called “democratic transition,” has burst with the heat of the global financial crisis of 2007. Its implosion has been confronted, moreover, with distinct mechanisms of the socialization of said debt, like the European line of credit of €100 billion conceded to rescue the banks, and indirectly guaranteed by the state.

Basically, they are trying to make the whole of the population (and, principally, the working class and the most vulnerable sectors of the middle class) pay for a debt that has risen to a difficult to determine amount, but impossible to repay. In these moments, the Plans of Adjustment implemented, which follow the neoliberal orthodoxy, are causing a complete collapse of the basic pillars of the so-called Social State (which, as an aside, never actually developed toward European standards in Spain), with an absolute lethargy of economic activity which is expressed in devastating statistics like a year-to-year sales decrease of at least 12.6 percent or a decline of state revenue intake by close to six points of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the last year.

Of course, this suicidal (because it becomes evident that the debt cannot be repaid) and profoundly antisocial strategy is having undeniably radical effects. The unemployment rate has exceeded 25 percent of the active population; close to 20 million people (more than 40 percent of the population) live in economically precarious conditions; there are 1.7 million households with all of their members unemployed; and 63 percent of said unemployed no longer receive any benefits.

On top of that, the bursting of the real estate bubble has pushed a catastrophic situation on a large part of mortgage debtors who bought a house at the height of the cycle and now, in light of the explosion of the unemployment and the economic lethargy, cannot pay. There are over 500 evictions daily, with more than 95,000 in the last six months, and the suicides of people evicted from their homes are beginning to multiply.

Not everybody, of course, loses with the crisis: the historic gap between the parts of the national renting market in the hands of wage earners and in the hands of the business owners is rapidly closing.

Wages in 2006 stood at 47.26 percent of GDP, and the rate of profit at 41.43 percent. In the last quarter of 2012, the difference has virtually disappeared, since wages now stand at 45.3 percent and corporate profits at 45.2 percent. In that respect, one must keep in mind that more than 90 percent of the private debt that is being socialized and, as such, paid by all tax contributors, belongs to the financial entities and the large businesses of the IBEX-35 (the benchmark stock market index of the Bolsa de Madrid, Spain’s principal stock exchange), while 85 percent of employment corresponds to the small and medium businesses that are severely suffering from the implemented Plans of Adjustment.

Furthermore, the austerity measures put in place unload their weight on the weakest: pharmaceutical copay; the privatization of hospital and ambulatory management; the disappearance of health benefits for irregular immigrants; education cuts expressed in thousands of firings and a rise in tuition at the universities and technical schools; repeal of the Dependency Law, destined to favor people caring for disabled people; the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers and accelerated privatization of state businesses and services; labor market reform that implies an almost chaotic drift toward a flexibility without brake and a clear reinforcement of business command; the dismantling of collective bargaining, prioritizing its decentralization and the possibility of lowering its conditions at the will of the boss. All of this appears to constitute an enormous offensive that wants to profoundly transform the basics structures of Spanish society.

Of course, resistance has come quickly. Following the surprising and magnificent eruption of the discontented multitudes in the streets on May 15, 2011, the demonstrations and protests have become massive, although, too many times, disconnected and disorganized. We are part of the formation of a parallel social block constructed in the environment of the assemblies of the 15-M Movement (the movement in favor of a new constituent process), the struggles against privatization and the affirmation of the radical sectors of social movements and the labor movement. At the same time, the major unions, tremendously bureaucratized, try to maintain their power through a strategy consisting of putting themselves at the head of the mobilization: when the rebellious wave rises, wearing them down and impeding their coming together, and abandoning them when the wave falls.

Against this background of emergency and rekindling of struggles, of rediscovery of the tactics of assembly and ground-up popular movements, the non-authoritarian movement seems well-placed, with its practices and discourse, to present itself to and fill a gap in the social consciousness. The effective cooperation of syndicalist organizations (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo [CNT], Confederación General del Trabajo [CGT] and Solidaridad Obrera) and their relationship with other militant unionists, has momentarily favoured a trend which paves the way for the autonomous and libertarian “scene,” and its ability to influence the aforementioned social milieu around the 15-M that has already spontaneously adopted the practice of assemblies

These conditions impose the necessity of constructing, creating and maintaining an open and conspiratorial position that permits building a grand alliance that raises the foundations of the beginning of a process of social transition, whose necessity is each time more shared in front of the global and ecological crisis in progress, toward another mode of life and of production in which the dignity and the freedom of the masses is the center of a vital transformational experience.

Translated by Daniel Perrett

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2013)

Spain: mainstream unions support big business, CNT fights back

An article by Brandon Oliver about the CNT's response to austerity in Spain.

Easter week, one of the busiest travel weeks in Spain, was supposed to see three strike days at Iberia Airlines, the country’s flagship carrier. This strike was called by the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), a revolutionary anarchosyndicalist union with which the IWW has a long history of mutual support, and Coordinadora Estatal del Sector Handling Aereo (CESHA), a baggage handlers’ union which is not political, but which rejects state funding and professional union staff, and operates through assemblies.

The goal of the strike was to continue a series of mobilizations that have been building since Iberia was bought by British Airlines and the new holding company, IAG, announced a plan at the end of 2011 to spin off a new “low-cost” carrier, IB Express. Originally this plan was supposed to preserve existing jobs and create 500 new ones, but as time went on it became clear that this was a way to restructure capital and discard as many workers as possible.

Of course, in a country with a 25 percent unemployment rate, the workers did not accept this without a response. Although there has historically been a large divide, with the pilots seeing themselves as separate from the ground staff and flight crew, there was a possibility for united action. The pilots struck at the end of December 2011, and in January 2012 the two majority unions, the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and the Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), worked with the large range of smaller unions that are present in Iberia to call for a strike of all staff—which was then sabotaged when the two majority unions called it off. However this backfired when the CNT branch in Iberia was able to form a coalition with the other minority unions and escalate the fight, beginning with a march of 1,500 workers and supporters (two of whom were IWW members who happened to be in the area) that same month in Madrid.

This mobilization has continued, with the minority unions gaining increasing support from the workers as the majority unions revealed just how yellow they were, up through March of this year. At that point, with the threat of united strike action by all of the unions, the government stepped in and imposed mediation. In the midst of large daily mobilizations around the airport, the majority unions signed an “agreement” which includes 3,141 layoffs and fierce cuts against the workers who will remain. The CNT and CESHA declared a strike in response, but they were unable to persuade any of the other minority unions to join them, so they abandoned it for the time-being. To drive the nail in the coffin, Iberia is prosecuting those two unions for declaring an illegal strike, and has fired the 14 members of CESHA’s strike committee (five of whom have since been reinstated) and seeks to do the same to the CNT.

Why is this important for IWW members? The landscape of labor law, union politics and social history in Spain is very different from the Anglo world where the IWW is rooted. Furthermore, Iberia is one very specific company, and there are certain factors that have allowed the CNT to have a more effective presence there than they have elsewhere. However, the CNT at Iberia can serve as a good model for what a small revolutionary union which seeks to grow should be doing.

The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975; the CNT, having been illegal during his reign, was re-established quickly afterwards and was tightly linked with a quickly growing workers’ movement that worked through assemblies and rejected paid staff and government mediation, as well as political party manipulation. Many of these workers’ struggles took place at the Madrid-Barajas Airport, where a CNT branch was founded the next year. In order to restore social peace, in 1977 the Spanish government worked with the main “Left” parties to create the Moncloa Pacts, the Spanish version of the National Labor Relations Act. This sought to channel all union activity through parliament-style elections, which allow for the existence of many unions. The unions receive money from the government based on how many votes they receive, and paid union time for officers from the company. Although there is no dues check-off and membership is completely voluntary, the result is similar—the unions become structurally separate from the workers and identify with the interests of those who sign their checks.

The CNT was the only major union at the time to reject this agreement, although a minority left to become what is now the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT). Following this there were several decades of government repression, relative social peace and media and political party manipulation, amongst other things. Finally around the turn of the millennium the CNT began to have more of an echo among workers who wanted to organize without subsidies or staffers. Relative to the IWW, the CNT is very large—about five or six times our membership in a country with a population comparable to California’s. Nonetheless, it is still very much a minority union, one of many. The section at Iberia, which is relatively strong and active in many parts of the company, is somewhat exceptional, and the comrades there give part of the credit to the elitist pilots’ union, which boycotts the elections and negotiates directly with the company, although probably for different reasons than the CNT.

So what do you do when the country’s economy collapses and the main political parties and their unions are negotiating with the European Union (EU) about how best to sell off all of the public services and rapidly nullifying practically the entire code of labor law? This is a discussion that is happening within the CNT and elsewhere, including within our organization, and it’s an important one. What the CNT has been doing at Iberia for 35 years seems to be a good model, a balance between two extremes that are often proposed: a closed “revolutionary political organization” or a semi-radical “mass movement.” A revolutionary union does not need to encompass the entire working class, but it also should not confine itself to workers who are already radical. It can act as a fighting organization on the shop floor (what “union” used to mean) and at the same time maintain a higher vision of a struggle against capitalism. This is not merely theoretical—it will have profound impacts on how an organization goes forward. Even if a revolutionary union preserves its specific identity, which it should do, it can also act as a catalyst among other workers’ groups, working-class organizations, and the broader working class in general. None of us know the best way to do this yet, but the CNT section at Iberia is showing one route to get there. As global capitalism tries to throw Spain in the same trash pile as Greece, the CNT might be able to act as a catalyst turning things in the other direction.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2013)

Industrial Worker (June 2013)

Articles from the June 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

What’s needed for effective industrial unionism

A response by Arthur Miller to “Staughton Lynd Responds To Counterpoint On Planks”, which appeared in the April 2013 Industrial Worker.

I do not misunderstand Staughton Lynd, I just have a different point of view. If our Preamble only spoke of industrial unionism I could understand his point of view, but it includes much more. Yes, the United Mine Workers (UMW), as is most all industrial unions in the AFL-CIO, is a far too top-down organization. That is not the fault of industrial unionism, but rather the fault of top-down unionism, of which the trade unions are mostly the same.

Still, even there I would say having industrial unions is far better than trade unions. I know this firsthand because since 1972, for the most part, I have belonged to other unions besides the IWW. Most of them were trade unions. In construction trade unions, they have been forced to create a bit of a hybrid form of industrial unionism between the Building Trades and Metal Trades Councils. But even with that, the trade union side of thinking sometimes wins out. I experienced that two times. Once during a Metal Trades strike that lasted eight-and-a-half months, when one of the unions signed their own contract and crossed the picket line of the other unions. Another time one union, the Boilermakers, signed a contract that left the other workers locked out for over a year.

Think about how things would have been if mining, auto, steel and so on organized by trade rather than by industry. You think things are bad now, it would be far worse if that had not happened. My point is that industrial unionism needs to be our union structure, but it does not stop there. There are many other things that are needed for good revolutionary unionism.

It is true, in my view, that “conventional labor unions would not seek radical structural change.” That is why we workers need the IWW and its unconventional revolutionary industrial unionism. As a long time dual carder it has been my view for over 40 years that the AFL-CIO cannot be reformed.

Yes, in modern times the IWW has been a bit weak at explaining its practices and ideas. Heck, all but one of our official literature items is out of print. And that is a big problem because I believe that we don’t only organize bargaining units, we also need to create Wobblies.

As to the term “to organize,” I think we have a different view on that. I believe that the role of organizers, that is good organizers, is to organize themselves out of a job. In other words, their job is to organize the workers so that they, the workers of a shop, can take over all the union work of their shop and branch when they are able to. The idea that workers should only organize themselves and once they do that we are willing to accompany them will not work often in the real world and would put off the workers taking control of their labor forever.

Arthur J. Miller, just an old retired shipyard worker

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (June 2013)

Venture syndicalism: can reviving the strike revive mass unionization?

A short article by Nate Hawthorne on the prospects of AFL-CIO unions taking bigger risks to halt the decline of unionization rates.

It’s surprising how small a fraction of U.S. workers are actually in labor unions. Just over 7 million government employees are union members and slightly fewer private sector employees are in unions. This means that just under 12 percent of public sector workers and less than 7 percent of private sector workers are in unions. These numbers keep falling.

If unions want to reverse their decline, they need to return to powerful strikes that stop businesses completely. That’s what Joe Burns argues in his recent book, “Reviving the Strike.” It’s a good book and I recommend it highly to all IWW members (it would pair very well with “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer” by Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross). Burns supplies a concise and clear argument about the role of labor law in the decline of unions. The labor law system doesn’t work for unions, so if the unions want to continue to exist, they need to start breaking the law, he argues. There are big risks to breaking the law, though. Burns suggests that unions can get around this by setting up and funding fully independent organizations that will have fewer resources, and less to lose as a result. We may be seeing versions of this already, with the strikes against Walmart warehouse subcontractors, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizing against Walmart and fast food respectively and union support for workers’ centers.

We might call this “venture syndicalism,” named after venture capitalism. Venture capital firms are companies that advance money to businesses that are in their very early stages, when they have little money, lots of risk of failure yet a high potential for success. The funds spent are a great deal of money for the startup company but only a small amount of money for a large financial company. Venture syndicalism is the union version of this, where the mainstream and wealthier unions fund more confrontational efforts than they can afford to carry out on their own.

Radicals have an important role to play in this effort. Both venture capitalism and venture syndicalism rely on a lot of initial unpaid hours by volunteers excited about the project for reasons beyond short-term financial gain. Burns suggests that most people join unions if and when it’s in their economic interest to do so. Unions in the United States are not going to have the power to win much unless there’s a threat of really serious economic harm to employers. That means unions are unlikely to act in ways that make the benefits of forming a union outweigh the costs for most people.

If people join unions based on costbenefit analysis then there’s little reason why anyone would ever take such actions. There’s a sort of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” quality to all this; most people won’t join unions unless there’s some benefit to doing so, yet the law is set up so that unions behave in ways that limit the benefits of unionization. Breaking the law will have huge costs, so why would people break the law?

The solution to the puzzle is that some people need to take militant action despite the risks, and not primarily out of a narrow cost-benefit analysis. I think this is part of the role that radicals can play in helping set off movements to enliven the existing labor movement. Some people might run the risks of initial militancy despite the consequences. In doing so, they push against the current prevailing forms of governing capitalism. If these initial efforts succeed, larger numbers can join in and the rules of the game will change, encouraging larger numbers of workers to form unions. That is to say it is often not in workers’ short-term interests, narrowly understood, to form unions. People who act bravely against short-term interests might change this condition, to make it so that unionization becomes more in keeping with people’s short-term narrow interests. This is basically what happened in the 1930s. It may be happening again, or may be coming in the near future.

If all of this is happening or begins to happen soon, we should welcome it but also ask: yes, revive the strike, but for what purpose? To put it another way, let’s say the unions “revive the strike,” as Burns has called for. Then what? What Burns argues is that this could lead to greater unionization. Is that what we want? Should we measure success by rising rates of unionization, and in dollars and cents won on the shop floor?

We’re a revolutionary union. In my view, we should have an organizationwide conversation about different ways to organize a post-revolutionary society, what we think a revolution would look like in the countries where we operate and what activities might move a revolution closer. I’m not convinced that a militant labor struggle alone moves the working class toward a new society. What I’ve been calling venture syndicalism might be an effort by the labor movement to revive the strike in order use it to advocate for a new and “better” capitalism. We shouldn’t think that the militancy of a strike alone is a measure of how much it brings us closer to a new society.

More to the point, if we see the AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor groups begin to aggressively break the rules of labor law, we should welcome this, but will it change our understanding of those unions? If this happens we may be asked to stand with their struggles, and we should do so. But we should do so in ways that put us in contact with the members of those organizations, not primarily their staff and officers, and that will create conversations about what a good society would look like, not simply to address the issues of winning the short-term struggle. Otherwise we’ll be little more than unpaid volunteers in the venture syndicalist project..

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker (June 2013)

Industrial Worker (July/August 2013)

Articles from the July/August 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

Venture syndicalism: fanning and dousing the flames of discontent

Article from the Industrial Worker newspaper on fast food strikes in the U.S.

Currently, organizations funded by unions are trying to win legislation requiring higher pay in the U.S. fast food industry under slogans like “Fight for a Fair Economy” Pay increases are great, but these efforts fit into something I called “venture syndicalism” in a column last month. We can see elements of a theory of venture syndicalism in a document called “Joining Voices: Inclusive Strategies for Labor’s Renewal,” which the American Federation of Teachers put out in 2005. (For more on this see Joe Burns’ excellent book “Reviving The Strike.”) While that document did not originate within the “Fight for a Fair Economy” campaign, it can help us get a sense of the discussions in the mainstream labor movement that inform that campaign and will probably inform future efforts. “Joining Voices” explains that “existing unions have much to risk and lose,” that is, lots of money which make them vulnerable to fines, if they violate laws against “secondary boycotts and shutdowns, sit-down strikes, etc.” But new unions “with no accumulated treasuries…would have substantially less to lose” and so could “enjoy greater strategic and tactical flexibility” to carry out “unconventional tactics unencumbered by the restraints of current labor law.” 

“Joining Voices” called for existing and wealthier unions to provide “money, logistical assistance, long-term loaned staff and other help”  to “organizing committees of start-up unions” while allowing these new “start-up unions” to be fully independent, at least formally. If these “start-up unions” succeeded, “increasing union density in any sector, by any union” would benefit “all union members everywhere and the labor movement as a whole.” Because these start-up unions have few resources, they are more able to break the law. The independence of these “start-up unions” would create “institutional firewalls for donor unions.” If there was a violation of the law, the independent “start-up,” with its smaller treasury, would take the hit, not the donor union with the big treasury. That’s the “venture” part of venture syndicalism. 

Here’s the ”syndicalism” part, though it’s more like “so-called syndicalism.” Unions today are experimenting in two important ways, by fighting for union contracts without going through National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections, and sometimes by “organizing outside collective bargaining,” to quote “Joining Voices” again. Efforts to pass laws requiring higher wages are an attempt to go around the NLRB while keeping the government as a key part of guaranteeing workers’ livelihoods. That is, they are an effort to abandon the NLRB while getting a different part of the state to play a role in mediating between workers and capitalists.

These efforts to go outside the NLRB are based on unions’ understanding that the NLRB is broken. Workers lose NLRB elections lose more often than they win. The odds of getting a first contract after an election are equally awful, for those workers who do manage to win the initial election. The NLRB has little power to punish employers who break the law in fighting workers who organize. Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross’s “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer,” a book every IWW member ought to read, lays this out quite well. So does Burns’ “Reviving the Strike.” This criticism of the NLRB is a big part of recent discussion in the IWW about so-called “direct unionism.” Staff and officers in the business unions are at least as aware of the limits of the NLRB as we are in the IWW. The decline of the NLRB marks an important historic shift, as the U.S. capitalist class and government have largely abandoned unions as tools for governing capitalism. Largely due to the NLRB, unions played a key role in how mid-20th century U.S. capitalism was governed and maintained.

Venture syndicalism is part of a larger trend of “militant reformism.” I point this out because it is easy for us to get swept up in struggles carried out by sincere people and to forget about the fundamental character of the organizations involved. Even when they use exciting, innovative, militant tactics, reformist unions are still committed to “the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’” as our constitution’s Preamble puts it. The IWW and our sister organizations reject this slogan, embracing "the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.” Our goal is to “bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,” to quote the song “Solidarity Forever.” We should welcome rising militancy but we should be prepared for the people calling the shots in venture syndicalist projects to act as a force for the old society against the creation of a new world out of its ashes. We must remember that not all struggles help to end capitalism, and that militancy and radicalism are two different things

Unions which are committed to nothing more than “fair wages” are like a gas stove. Different parts of a stove create and sustain fire, but also contain fire, keep it from getting above a certain temperature, prevent it from spreading or joining up with other fires, and put it out by cutting off the fuel. Similarly, different parts of reformist unions create and sustain class struggle, keep it from getting too hot, prevent it from spreading too much or joining up with other struggles, and bring conflicts to an end. Gas stoves are about making fire useful for cooking. Ultimately, reformist unions and government labor policy are about making the fires of class struggle useful to capitalism. 

Venture syndicalism is an attempt to make unions once again into important tools for governing U.S. capitalism. This involves creating and sustaining some of the fire of class struggle. We should welcome that, but we should also be aware that reformist unions fight for goals which will include their ability to contain, limit, and end struggles, if struggles get intense enough. Aspects of venture syndicalism will pull class struggle in the direction of the old world we reject. This means that IWW members who participate in these efforts should ask ourselves if our participation amounts to anything more than “we follow the strategy set by the people in charge and help them win on their terms.” If not, then we are basically just volunteers in a project oriented fundamentally around the conservative “fair wages” vision we reject. 

I am almost but not quite saying that these campaigns are reformist so the IWW should not participate. IWW members should participate in venture syndicalist projects…if we have nothing better to do. In those cases, we should participate with a plan to gain skills, experience, confidence, and relationships so that we will eventually have something better to do. When we participate, we should be honest with ourselves about whether or not, and how, we are actually accomplishing our goals. We should also be clear about what we are and are not going to accomplish as volunteers in venture syndicalist projects. I am reminded of John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. Lewis was relatively conservative but he liked hiring radicals as organizing staff. When criticized by moderates for this decision, his reply showed that he did not see radical participation in the CIO as a threat to capitalism: “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” he said. When we participate in venture syndicalist projects, we should always remember who holds the leash.

This column originally appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper in July, 2013.

Workers & peasants demand a kingdom of heaven on Earth: a review of 'Q'

A review by John O'Reily of Q by Luther Blissett.

Blissett, Luther. Q. Boston: Mariner Books, 2005 (reprint edition). Paperback, 768 pages, $39.95.

Most people think about the Protestant Reformation about as frequently as they think about sitting down to do their taxes, if not even less. But a contentious medieval Europe is the backdrop for one of the best pieces of historical fiction that Wobblies should really pay attention to. “Q,” the novel by a collective of radical Italians who used to publish under the name Luther Blissett and now go by Wu Ming, is a great adventure story that also packs a political wallop. The sequel to “Q” has just been translated from the Italian to English and been released, so it is worth revisiting the original novel, published in 2000, to remember why exciting works of fiction like “Q” should be a priority for Wobblies to check out.

The book centers around two characters and is structured like a spy novel. The protagonist, who goes by various names throughout the book, is known most frequently as Gert-From-The-Well. He is a German who bounces around various revolutionary groups during the explosion of social conflict that takes place during the Reformation. He follows the flags of peasant rebels, communistic Christian booksellers and preachers, cruel messianic zealots, pacifist communitarians and persecuted Jewish liberals, as their fortunes rise and fall, ever in the quest to be free of the influences of the powerful and authoritarian Catholic Church, the kings and lords of Europe, and the increasingly out-of-touch “official” Protestant leadership. Gert deals with the inevitable crushing of movements for popular power by changing his name and moving on to a new struggle, a man weighed down by the fact that while his comrades often die, he lives on to fight another day.

His antagonist is the shadow known as Q, a papal operative who blends in with the crowds of workers and peasants throughout Europe, seeking information on heresies and finding a way into the good graces of radical movements in order to subvert them. Q, less a zealot than a cynical manipulator, finds a way to put himself on the sidelines of multiple popular struggles, using his influence and instincts to tear at the unity of those who would be free of the Catholic Church’s power. He and Gert’s paths consistently cross, though their significance to each other remains concealed for most of their respective journeys.

While “Q” is an exciting story of intrigue, back-stabbing and straight up swash-buckling, what makes it most interesting for Wobblies to check out is that its center is on ethics and that it’s a story of anti-capitalism. Outside of a few science fiction writers, most fiction treats radicals as a stand-in for something else. Radicals are often signifiers, ciphers, of viewpoints that the author seeks to abstract. Radicals, rebels, anti-capitalists, and others are introduced to talk about the author’s ideas about intransigence, morality, discipline, freedom, personal virtue or a host of other ideas. What makes “Q” different is that the authors are themselves veterans of the Italian extra-parliamentary left, and they write the novel to talk about the ideas of anticapitalist struggle itself. In “Q,” radicals are real people, with complicated and contradictory ideas, with lives and thoughts of their own, but still with a firm dedication to their cause of liberty from the dominant repressive order.

They are not archetypes but characters. Instead of communism being a signifier for something else, it is the content of the plot itself. Gert’s adventures through various revolutionary activities show the highs and lows, exuberance, excitement and excess, of people who spend their lives trying to live without bishops, popes and kings. It’s hard not to identify with the plight of the common people organizing themselves for liberation who appear throughout the novel, not as stereotypes of the hammer-and-sicklewielding proletarians and peasants of socialist realism, or misguided bohemians and shady bureaucrats of most Western literature, but as the regular types of people you run into at the bar or the grocery store, who have just had enough of the oppression of the bosses and cops.

Based on the actual history of various uprisings and scandals in Europe in the 16th century, “Q” delivers a heart-pounding story of revolt and repression. While the novel has its flaws, particularly in the relative weakness of its female characters (something recognized by its authors, who have promised that the sequel, “Altai,” will deal with better), “Q” is a first-rate adventure novel that highlights a reasonably obscure piece of the people’s history of Europe and imbues it with the fire of revolution. In a moment when everything from the papacy, to the divine right of kings, to the idea of God itself was up for debate, “Q” tells an engaging story of everyday workers and peasants demanding a kingdom of heaven on Earth and willing to go as far as needed to make it happen.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (July/August 2013)

Industrial Worker (September 2013)

Articles from the September 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit here.

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here.

Life-long Wobblies

An article by J Pierce and Sadie Farrell about life-planning for revolutionaries and how the IWW has attempted to address this with Junior Wobblies.

Two IWW dreams came true for me at Mesaba Co-op Park this summer. One was to lead a conversation about being life-long revolutionaries. The other was to teach IWW principles to kids in a memorable way. The Work People’s College Committee approved the workshop I co-led with FW Linda called “Che Guevara vs. Mr. Rogers: Long-Term Planning for Lifelong Wobblies” (hereinafter referred to as “Life Planning”). The Junior Wobblies counselors gave me the opportunity to design some curriculum for the kids. These two experiences, as it turned out, went hand in hand.

The IWW has always been a multigenerational organization—something we are all very proud of. However, the union is entering a newer stage of retention since our gradual resurgence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many of our 20-something- year-old-members from that time are now 30- and 40-somethings with kids, partners and the stresses of being grown-up trouble-makers. Life Planning and Junior Wobblies are two exemplars of our readiness for the new IWW.

Life Planning

I’ve been promoting the idea of “IWW career counseling” for a while. In numerous conversations, fellow workers expressed their frustration at dedicating years of their work lives to IWW organizing. When it was all over, they had little to show for it: no money, no job prospects, and no marketable skills—nothing that meant “success.” The only viable career path, at that point, was to work for the business unions, which are constantly tempting IWWs with a mirage of security and respectability. Wobblies have also quit the union in order to “become their own boss,” ascend into the left intelligentsia, or graduate to being a “real” union member in a trade. This led to the idea that we should be helping each other build toward a career that allows us to stay in the IWW and work a job we might actually enjoy. Life planning combines “career counseling” and “life coaching” and draws out the contradictions and complexities that a Wobbly encounters as we progress through years of struggle.

Entanglements that we covered in the workshop included raising Wobbly kids and supporting Wobbly parents; finding life partners and maintaining those relationships; overcoming burnout, mild and severe depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental illness; struggling with work, criminal records, lack of money or jobs, housing problems, prison, deportation, retirement; and more. As we invent collective solutions to these highly personal problems, we are forced to be honest with ourselves about what it really takes to be a life-long revolutionary.

Junior Wobblies

As we examined various collective solutions to life planning, we discovered that the single best “long-term plan” is already in full bloom: it’s the Junior Wobblies! A youth and family component to the IWW addresses an infinite amount of concerns, and is fun too. The first Junior Wobblies camp took place last summer, July 1 through July 5, 2012, at Mesaba. The Junior Wobblies camp is run by parents, counselors and increasingly by the Junior Wobblies themselves. Junior Wobblies programming runs at the same time as Work People’s College workshops, giving Wobbly parents the opportunity to participate in Junior Wobblies activities, attend workshops or do a combination of both!

For this year’s Junior Wobblies camp, we dreamt up an extended role play to get the kids doing the principles of the IWW. We did this by preparing a “Spanish Revolution” theme and using “living history”— playing dress-up and reenacting (an inspired version of) Spanish Civil War history. We tied the activities together with the idea that the kids were an anarchist youth collective building toward the revolution of 1936. We discussed regimentation and racism in the schools. We discussed how boring “robot” schools prepare kids for boring “robot” jobs. We practiced breaking down racial barriers and standing up to bullies. We worked in a mind-numbing paper airplane plant and had silent agitators encourage other youth to fight for the good things in life: “Stop cleaning the litter box and read!” “No—Sleep! Yes—Swim!” “Eat the rich and your pizza!” “Stand up to the bullies and join the Junior Wobblies!” “Capitalism sucks!! Join the Junior Wobblies!” We sewed red-and-black neckerchiefs and practiced union songs. And we defeated the fascists at the barricades thanks to disciplined production of water balloon munitions and the creativity, unity and spirit of the workers in battle.

Instead of instructing the kids in “politics,” the trick was to get them to feel what we feel as class-conscious workers. By using living history, role plays and interactive scenarios, the kids get to use their own thinking to arrive at their own conclusions. Simulations such as the barricade activity allow people to make mistakes and learn from them ahead of time while preparing for the real thing. Many of the kids won’t fully grasp the ideology behind the barricade activity, but they will remember the experience, the process and how it made them feel. The adventure of fighting alongside the “union” and the Junior Wobblies against these people called “fascists” and then singing “Solidarity Forever” and “A las Barricadas” in triumph— these are not political ideas. They are visceral sensations that will stay with them for a long time.

The secret is that adults need to have multi-sensory experiences, too. Adults learn the same way children do; it’s just less embarrassing if we can pretend the dress-up is for the kids. Educating children, or adults, in IWW values is not about convincing ourselves intellectually. It’s about creating experiences that engender the positive feelings of solidarity and cooperation while practicing good habits like befriending people who are different than you and standing up to the bullies together. The Junior Wobblies talked about how we needed to demonstrate the principle of solidarity by helping each other and having each other’s backs while showing each other kindness and respect if we were going to organize successfully for the revolution. The Junior Wobblies lived the principle of solidarity all week long. Older kids helped younger kids participate in activities. Veteran Junior Wobblies helped new recruits learn the ropes at Mesaba, and the kids took care of each other if one of them was hurt or upset. It’s easy to feel a sense of solidarity when working with the Junior Wobblies, and supporting our union parents is the best way to transform the IWW into the organization we all want to see.

The New IWW

At Mesaba this year, and in every branch, we have ample real-world evidence of the phenomenon of life-planning or the lack thereof. We had organizers who were stressed out, broken down, and burning out fast. We also had fellow workers who were working their plan, staying healthy, and supporting others to do the same. But the days of leaving our members to “sink or swim” on their own are coming to an end. As a union, we must find collective solutions to the challenges our members face. The more we transition to a family-oriented, healthy-habit, long-term-planning IWW the better we are going to be at building and sustaining life-long Wobblies.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2013)

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Reviews: Wu Ming express values, desires for a better world

Nate Hawthorne reviews Wu Ming's book, Altai.

Wu Ming—a pseudonym for a group of Italian authors—sometimes describe themselves as a band, just a band that makes novels instead of albums. Whatever you call it, the key bit is that these people write together and what they write is awesome. Wu Ming themselves have a fascinating history, which is so interesting it would take up too much room here to do it justice, crowding out the book, but I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia entry on them. Pay particular attention to the account of the Luther Blissett Project. Also I should mention that the group remains active in the Italian far left after many years, which means they write from a place of outrage at injustice and desire for a better world.

All of their work that has been translated into English is historical fiction. Wu Ming’s novels “Manituana,” about Native Americans who side with the British during the American war of independence, and “Q,” about peasant revolutionaries during the Protestant Reformation in Germany, are two of my all-time favorite books. I gave “Q” to my dad for Christmas a few years ago. My dad has a high school education, works in construction and is definitely not a radical. I love the guy but we don’t have a lot in common. I really wanted to have this novel in common with him so I wanted him to like it and I worried that he wouldn’t. When I asked what he thought of it he said, “Awesome book. Seriously awesome, I couldn’t put it down.” Good taste runs in the family.

I just read “Altai,” Wu Ming’s newest novel. “Altai” is also the name of a falcon used in hunting. If I knew what kind of sound those birds make when excited, and I knew how to type out that sound, I would do so now. I hope it suffices to say “hell yeah.” This is a great book. (Don’t tell my dad but “Altai”’s gonna be his birthday gift this year.)

“Altai” picks up after “Q” and the central character of “Q”—a German radical who passed through many an uprising—appears in “Altai” as well. The book’s main character is a spy for Venice who is set up to take a fall for political purposes right at the novel’s beginning and ends up working for his former enemies. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot points so let me just say that he undergoes important personal transformations and becomes embroiled in further intrigue and military expeditions.

“Altai” is a spy novel, full of gripping suspense and tension. There’s enough mystery to captivate, but it never gets confusing. And while there are militant moments, this is not a book that glorifies war—far from it. The book expresses a profound skepticism that military measures can achieve human liberation, and rightly so in my view.

The book is set largely in Constantinople, contemporary Istanbul. As Istanbul’s been the scene of vile repression and heroic protest lately, it seems to me that the publication of “Altai” in English is appropriately timed. While the earlier book, “Q,” had more scenes of ordinary people in rebellion than “Altai,” “Altai” is still concerned with issues of power and social change. If the world is a chess board, we are the front row, the pawns, and they the back row, the kings, queens, bishops, who are willing to see us suffer and die for petty rivalry and profit. Except at its edges, “Altai” doesn’t depict people in rebellion against their positions, but rather it focuses on the people in power and the terrible things they are willing to do. The sympathies of the novel, however, lie with the pawns, or with the movements that aim to kick the board off the table and begin a new game altogether.

The book is resonant with the present moment as well because of the central role that Jewish identity, anti-Semitism and struggles for a Jewish homeland play in the novel. I would describe the novel as anti-Zionist and anti-racist, which is to say, certainly not anti-Semitic. This theme is obviously relevant to the present given continuing conflicts and tensions, as well as popular rebellions, in the Middle East and the role of Israel and U.S. support for Israel in shaping that region.

I often feel unsophisticated as a reader of fiction (I read for enjoyment, not profundity), so I’m not totally sure about this, but I think the falcon, the Altai of the novel’s title and a few scenes, is a symbol. At one point in “Altai,” a character named Ismail, the revolutionary who was the main character in “Q,” argues that the methods used in a struggle shape its goals: “If you want to catch a hare, whether you hunt it with hounds or with a falcon, on foot or on horseback, it will always be a hare. Freedom, on the other hand, never remains the same; it changes according to the way you hunt. And if you train dogs to catch it for you, you may just bring back a doggy kind of freedom.” The novel’s narrator, as a spy, then former spy, then spy for another master, is not a dog. He’s a kind of falcon, with more freedom and sophistication than a hunting dog. And yet, falcons are leashed and hooded by the hunters who own them, and hunters set their agenda and take the results of the hunt. The narrator finds a limited kind of freedom and fulfilment via playing that role, but at significant cost. He tells Ismail, “Machiavelli wrote that you must keep your eye on the end, not the means.” Ismail replies, “Over the years I’ve learned that the means change the end.” Perhaps the difference between dogs and altai is not so great; if our route to freedom involves hoods and leashes, it may end up not being the freedom we wanted.

“Altai” is a rich novel and not a simplistic political fable, so I don’t want to reduce the book to a simple set of political lessons. Instead, I would like to end by talking about the importance of stories like this. As radicals, I think we need stories that express our values, both our hopes and our outrages, our desires for a better world and our rejection of this world. Wu Ming writes those kinds of stories.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2013)

Solidarity network or solidarity service?: on the challenges of building a solidarity network

The following originally appears in September 2013 issue of the IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, with the title “Building a solidarity network is harder than it seems.” Written by WRC member R. Spourgitis, it is a review of the pamphlet Build Your Own Solidarity Network, by two Seattle Solidarity Network members, and is based on our experiences with this project in Iowa City.

The Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol) is a “workers’ and tenants’ mutual support organization that fights for specific demands using collective direct action.” SeaSol has a dedication to direct action and emphasis on empowering workers and tenants, and they have a very high success rate. Given this, the “SeaSol Model” seems to embody an inspiring new mode of class struggle for the increasingly precarious—it is no wonder it has been exported all over the world and become a popular project for many, anarchists and other anti-capitalists in particular.

The 2011 pamphlet “Build Your Own Solidarity Network,” written by SeaSol members Cold B and T Barnicle details SeaSol’s strategy for taking on fights well (the pamphlet is online at http://libcom.org/library/you-say-you-want-build-solidarity-network).

In November 2010 a group of us in Iowa City, Iowa, began forming a solidarity network. Thinking strategically about what you can or cannot accomplish in a project, and the steps taken to get there, were not things I was used to when we started our own solidarity network. Building a solidarity network was part of an important shift in my politics. It meant going from issue-based activism and one-off campaigns or protests to direct action work on immediate economic demands at the point of exploitation. This work aligns with IWW practice. The descriptions of demand-delivery and section titled “Agitate – Educate – Organize” will be familiar to those who have been through the Organizer Training 101.

The guide has nuts-and-bolts information about group-based tasking and organization, which many of us spend years learning the hard way. Granted, only reading about it falls short of doing it, but the importance of these lessons should not be understated. Seemingly small items like encouraging group members to take on key tasks, following up with them, and running efficient, well-moderated meetings are necessary to a functioning organization of any sort, and it is refreshing to see this plainly laid out.

My experience building a solidarity network substantially differed from what was described by the SeaSol organizers in this pamphlet. There were difficulties we did not anticipate, and while we did not expect to adapt the model whole cloth to our area and be immediately successful, there were recurrent issues that hampered our ability to build fights from the network that the pamphlet does not address. I suspect that our experiences with this solidarity network model are not wholly unique and I hope that others will write more about their experiences with these types of projects so that we may refine our strategies and tactics. In Iowa City, we experienced tensions within the solidarity network model and these experiences are probably similar to others who have not had the successes with this model that Seattle has.

“People wanting to know how SeaSol got started often ask whether we had funding, whether we had an office, or whether we had extensive legal knowledge. We had none of these things, and we didn’t need them.”

It is a strength of the model that a solidarity network can begin with few existing resources. One thing the pamphlet stresses is that a key strategy to success is identifying what you can win, which is perhaps harder than it sounds and often requires a kind of resource. Specifically, it requires at least some legal knowledge of tenants’ and workers’ rights. In Iowa City, not having much familiarity with the specifics of our state and local law, particularly housing, quickly became a problem. We realized early that we needed to know if what people were contacting the solidarity network about could be built into a fight, and the law was a factor in this. Through online research we found relevant housing code and labor law to our area. We then produced a booklet that went into an on-call book of sorts, with a notepad for people’s information, and a list of area aid agencies.

The vast majority of our calls were housing related—around 90-95 percent of them. It became apparent that the tenants contacting us were usually not experiencing illegal actions on the part of their landlords, such as refusal to renew leases, hiking rents with lease renewals, giving bad referrals or threatening to call the police for minor infractions. In our area these are legal actions, even as they are terribly exploitative and oppressive for these tenants. As the SeaSol model is based on being winnable, this meant not taking on these cases. The emphasis on taking on “winnable fights” in effect translated to fighting against illegal actions and it was rare that this was blatantly the case.

“…the activists who started the project did not have to see ourselves as something separate from the group we wanted to organize. We were part of that group.”

The solidarity network model seeks to embody the principle of “solidarity not charity.” The fact that we work together as fellow tenants and workers to put pressure on those bosses and landlords screwing us over, instead of mediating through official channels, is a powerful thing. In practice, I found this is somewhat misleading about the realities of this work. Contrary to the principle underlying the model, we often fell into a distinctively service-led approach. None of the organizers’ workplaces or housing situations were built into fights, and so instead of fighting where we live and work, we ended up trying to assist others to fight where they live and work. We encouraged those who contacted us to become involved in the network, but this was never sustained beyond a meeting or two. One lesson here may be that when an individual meets with a network devoted to resolving their grievance—even if this network has a combative class-struggle approach—he or she is not unfairly expecting specialists of some kind. If the network explains that it does not specialize in this particular grievance, that does not change what the individual is expecting from that network.

This service role was exactly what most people who contacted us expected from us. It was notable that when we told contacts we want to follow their lead and described the demand delivery and escalating tactics approach, there was a sudden drop-off in interest. Although the authors of the SeaSol pamphlet say “people who have taken the initiative to contact us are more likely to be people who are prepared to play an active role in a campaign,” our experience was almost anything but this.

There were a handful of people we met with who had very clear, winnable-sounding fights. In these instances, the individual either handled it themselves or went through another channel to resolve their grievance. There were also those who contacted us and we waited too long to respond. Sometimes, we followed up with them immediately and never heard back. Given the immediacy of their need and seriousness of the living situation, it was understandable that we were not always equipped to help, even in a charitable, service-led capacity.

It should be pointed out that we were aware of these problems at the time. We worked on improving our response time. We did some of the things suggested in the guide, such as changing the wording on our flyers and flyering more consistently. Since we seemed to get many people in tough situations but which we couldn’t help, we changed them from saying “Problems with your landlord?” to “Stolen deposits or unmade repairs?” This did not have an appreciable difference in the type or volume of calls we would receive.

Being that so many of the contacts were renting units in apartment complexes, something we discussed was the need to build collective action with committees of tenants from the apartments—much like described in the “Inside Organizing” section at the end of the guide. Unfortunately, we never connected with a single tenant willing or able to build such a committee, let alone a group of them. This is not to say those tenants are not out there, but they did not contact us.

Our area is like many places in the United States, there are no tenants’ unions or associations. There is a Housing Authority directly complicit with the police and the major property management companies, and a handful of neighborhood associations devoted to immediate need programming and state social workers. As a result, there is little to no recourse for the injustices dealt to tenants. I have to wonder if such a lack of social services and mediation, as disempowering and meager as they are, differs from other places and led us to be expected as another service.

Additionally, our immediate region is undergoing big changes in its racial composition. As gentrifying efforts have stepped up in major metro areas, recent years have seen an increase in Black and Latino residents in Iowa City (67 percent and 97 percent increases respectively between 2000-2010). There is a more complicated picture behind these demographic shifts and their causes and effects than I can do justice to in this brief review. Still, it is clear that for many new residents to the area that the structural racism of local power is felt from the police, schools, city services, and, of course, in housing.

I illustrate this local context because nearly all of the few contacts we met with were Black women. Conversely, our solidarity network was made up of a majority male, entirely white grouping. This is not intended to lament our group’s dynamics or to advocate retreating into inaction based on white guilt, but it would be dishonest to omit such marked differences of race and gender between solidarity network members and our contacts. This fact comes to mind when the authors suggest door-knocking and more heavily flyering apartment complexes with known problem landlords. At times we did flyer specific areas, but taking that recommendation to its fullest extent in my opinion would have amounted to some of the worst kind of white radical paternalism. While efforts were made to include the women we met with in our organizing, these could have been stronger. However, an individual or two does not represent a community, and the divide of white radical activists and a majority people of color service community remain as a fact of this organizing experience.

The Iowa City Solidarity Network operated for a little more than a year. In that time, we learned about our area and the reality of engaging local struggles to a depth unappreciated before. Occupy Iowa City emerged in late 2011 and our efforts shifted to that project. Given the frustrating and lackluster experience of the solidarity network, it was something we decided to close in December of that year.

Reflecting on this model, I think there are aspects indicating more individualized service work than is appreciated, as the single individual with a legally legitimate grievance calls in for support and the solidarity network organizers act as specialists in struggle. There is more at work here than the SeaSol model, though. There are bigger issues with the project which span the anti-capitalist left: organizers lacking real connections to working-class communities—not forced or imaginary ones—the lack of a recent shared history of collectively fighting back, and the lack of a material support system for those willing to take risks in their jobs or living situations, to name a few.

The SeaSol model may be useful in other places. IWW people considering a solidarity network may want to find out what services already exist for tenants and workers in their area to determine if they are prepared to handle people in crisis mode looking to them for service and if they are equipped to mobilize a number of people for a public showing of solidarity. Additional questions or criteria are probably needed for an IWW branch to consider it, such as if fights will come from their own membership or outside and if the latter how to handle people new to the IWW coming in for their workplace or housing grievance.

At this stage of class struggle, different approaches in different places are worth trying and a solidarity network might be a useful one indeed.

Industrial Worker (October 2013)

Articles from the October 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here

Reports, discussion abound at the 2013 IWW General Convention

An account by Mathieu Dube of the IWW's 2013 General Convention in Edmonton.

This year my fellow workers of the Pittsburgh General Membership Branch (GMB) entrusted me to be their delegate to the 2013 IWW General Convention that was held in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on Labor Day weekend, Friday, Aug. 30 - Sunday, Sept. 1. I will share my experience of the proceedings in the following lines. I chose to focus on what displayed, in my opinion, the most interest for the union membership. I apologize for the voluntary omissions.

The first thing that stood out was how well the Edmonton branch took care of the logistics. The transportation was slick to the Friday “meet-and-greet” that took place in the same building that the convention would be held the following days, the Queen Mary Park Community League Hall located in a park. There were literature and swag tables offering an extensive selection of political books. Beer and alcohol were sold as part of a benefit. This event gave the attendees a chance to get to know each other before getting to work on union business the following days. The billets were sent in advance and, as was the case for me, if your flight got canceled, the local organizers were able to roll with the punches and accommodate you without problems. The lodging was coordinated efficiently and provided by local members that were genuinely hospitable.

Saturday morning started with the credentials verification to ensure that all of the delegates were eligible to perform their duty. All delegates were given a free copy of the new book published by Recomposition Blog, “Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance,” as part of its official launch. The whole day was dedicated to reports from the union’s officers and standing committees. Our General Secretary-Treasurer (GST), FW Sam Green, ended his mandate by providing us with enlightening comments on the challenges that the union is facing according to him. Of these, I would mention the difficulty that our current structures have in dealing with our international growth. Indeed, and it is a good problem to have: from a membership largely based in North America, our union has grown quite a bit Europe at the turn of the century. This poses a few challenges, for instance, that General Headquarters (GHQ) acts as the de facto General Administration for the whole union but also as the specific administration for members in the United States. The report of the Organizational Training Committee (OTC) was very impressive. This committee is in the process of formalizing the curriculum of the Organizer Training. The trainers will also be trained, and their work evaluated, so that we can ensure quality across all trainings.

The most contentious report was that of the Industrial Worker’s editor since she, the General Executive Board (GEB), and the GST have come to a decision to distribute the paper digitally by default, unless the member asks to receive a hard copy. Many delegates had questions and the editor, the GST as well as members of the GEB had the occasion to address the opposition of certain members and elaborate on the reasons that motivated this decision. I believe this discussion clarified things. From my interpretation, the decision was made because of financial concerns (i.e. that the printing and shipping costs had increased too much in comparison to the revenues) but also because the board, the editor, and the GST felt that there was some waste in the sense that resources allocated to printing and distributing the paper were too high for the actual need. A lot of papers were left to rot at GHQ because of the fact that we need to print more than we distribute. Also, a lot of members read the PDF version already and throw the copy they receive straight into the recycling bin.

On Sunday, we moved on to working on the motions. There were two sets of them, a few emergency motions and motions that had been submitted on time to be included officially in the agenda. The first official motion was a constitutional amendment made in the spirit of adjusting the language of the structures used in workplace organizing to reflect actual practices. The job branches, which have no specified rights or responsibilities in the current version of the constitution, would be removed to follow the organizational committee’s approach that is closer to our current methods. The merits of letting shops use the union logo were discussed at length. Some delegates argued that our revolutionary mindset should prevent us from helping companies make sales by having the union bug on their product, others contended that a lot of workers made purchasing decisions based on the fact that products or services were made by unionized workers. In the end the motion passed as it was written, including the possibility to use the union bug. The second official motion, also a constitutional amendment, was aimed at modifying how charges are handled at conventions. The purpose of the motion was twofold: first, to guarantee that the charges are dealt with as much fairness as possible, which implies allocating enough time to review them—which isn’t possible in two days; and second, to allow all delegates to participate in union business rather than spend valuable convention time serving on a charges committee. The motion basically calls for a committee to be formed to deal with the charges over a longer period of time, rather than have one committee formed by convention delegates—which would rush the charges process during the two days of the convention. Both these motions will be put on the ballot sent to all members so that they can vote on their addition to the constitution.

The convention left me with a very positive impression about the state of our union. Everyone was extremely serious about the work that needed to be done. The civil discussions were always carried out with the aim of finding concrete solutions to issues rather than petty politicking. The ability of the Edmonton branch to run this convention in such an efficient way inspired me to continue to work hard at building our local branch so that we could one day do the same. If the delegates that were at this year’s convention are typical of our membership, our union has a great future.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2013)

The parallels between the Sisters’ Camelot & Jimmy John’s anti-union campaigns: Part 2

The second part of a comparison between anti-union efforts at Jimmy Johns and at Sisters Camelot, a nonprofit 'mobile foodshelf', whose canvassers went on strike in Spring 2013.

Part 1 | Part 2

Travis & Robbie are members of the Jimmy John’s Workers Union and the Twin Cities General Membership Branch of the IWW. This is Part 2 of an article in which they discuss the similarities between the struggles at Jimmy John’s and Sisters’ Camelot. Part 1 appeared on pages 1 & 6 of the September IW. 1

This is the first we have heard of your concerns. If we had known, we would have gladly made things better. You can use existing ways to engage with the business so we can fix problems by working together. We will do things to show our appreciation of you and make it easier for you to come to us.

Many workers go to management with grievances when they first arise; we are conditioned to seek help from authority figures, whether they are parents, teachers, police officers or bosses. This is rarely ever effective in the workplace, however, because management is typically more removed from the grievance or because resolving it is simply not in their self-interest. This is frustrating and demoralizing for workers, especially those who genuinely care about their work. It is more productive for workers to talk to management collectively or to implement solutions together through direct action. When workers realize that their problems are common problems based on shared experiences, they are able to assert their needs more strongly together.

In the past, canvass directors and canvassers for Sisters’ Camelot have unsuccessfully attempted to individually lobby the collective to improve the working conditions of the canvassers without success, causing many canvassers and directors to leave on bad terms. Even the simple fact that the canvass workers have to go to an authority with their ideas, needs and demands debunks the idea that Sisters’ Camelot is an organization based on worker control. In an organization that allegedly values social justice and direct action, the canvassers should be able to implement their ideas for improving their conditions and performance at work without seeking approval from anyone above them.

In an anti-union drive, bosses will always offer concessions that serve both as gestures to placate the workers and as mechanisms for challenging the power of the union by roping workers back into systems that are controlled by management. The solution proposed (and major concession made) by the bosses has been for canvassers to join the collective. By offering them spots on the collective, the bosses are individualizing the workers in an attempt to divide and conquer. One canvasser on the collective can easily became overpowered and demoralized while the other canvassers remain entirely disempowered. The same thing occurred when Hardy Coleman, a former canvass director and then collective member, attempted to implement changes identical to many of the demands presented by the canvassers to the collective. It happened again when Bobby Becker was a member of the collective and became the sole advocate for the canvassers. There’s no reason to believe things will be any different if a different canvasser or two were to become collective members. At Jimmy John’s, bosses gave out raises and had one-on-one conversations with workers to try to legitimize their so-called “open door policy” and hinder the collective action of the workers.

The canvassers are in agreement about what they need in order to improve their work environment and do a better job. They shouldn’t need to join another body of the organization in order to make changes related to their work. Additionally, they shouldn’t need to take on the responsibility of making decisions about other programs carried out by the organization if they don’t want to. Part of the problem in this situation is that workers within the organization have the power to make decisions about the entire organization while others have no decision-making power at all. It is the right of all workers to control their own work environment and processes, and no other group needs to do that for them. Additionally, no worker should have to work unpaid time (a requirement for being part of the collective) to have a say on the job.

We are workers, too. We have worked hard to build this business and deserve your respect. Your organizing is hurtful to us. We are victims of your organizing.

In anti-union drives, bosses like to emphasize the fact that they also show up to work, contribute to the success of the business, or perhaps started it themselves. They like to play the victim card, insisting that workers’ organizing is uncalled for, offensive, hurtful and disrespectful. In this way, management and/or owners try to frame the union drive as a personal matter and try to draw attention to themselves. They often say the organizing drive is unfair and that there are more appropriate ways to engage with the company in order to offer suggestions or express concerns. This argument also veils a threat: if you organize, you will betray me and I will make your life at work hellish. At Jimmy John’s, as with most businesses, preferential treatment is offered to workers who are in the good graces of management by being particularly reverent to authorities or doing personal favors. During the anti-union drive at Jimmy John’s, workers were generally mistreated, including being denied raises because they declared union support, while others were given promotions and raises for taking the side of the company.

Of course, the Sisters’ Camelot collective members do work and perform important functions for the organization’s operations and programs. This is not, however, about the collective, and no canvasser has spoken ill of work done in their programs. The issue at hand is simply that one group of workers has power over their own work and that of an entirely different group of workers, leaving the latter disenfranchised. To make this union out to be an attack on Sisters’ Camelot as an organization or the collective members as workers is classist and narrow-minded. It ignores workers who lack their own autonomy, and it indicates a defense of capitalist hierarchies. Denying any worker their basic right alongside their fellow workers, and to exert control over their own work by refusing to relinquish your power is, well, exactly what Jimmy John’s did. And it is done partly out of a love for control and authority, partly out of a distrust of the workforce that is fundamentally rooted in classism, and partly out of a desire to continue to control the flow of capital. This is painfully similar to the situation unfolding at Sisters’ Camelot. The bosses at Sisters’ don’t trust the workers nor do they show any indication of giving up any of their power. The collective has explicitly stated they don’t trust the canvassers with things such as credit card information. The collective has also said the structural changes would be “unhealthy” for Sisters’ Camelot and that there must be “accountability” in place. By accountability, they obviously mean accountability to the collective. To say the canvass should be accountable to the collective but not vice versa is incredibly disrespectful and belittling.

The union drive could cause the business to close. We simply can’t afford to have a union.

Management will jump to the worst possible scenario in an anti-union drive. In many ways, this is meant to play on the fears of workers. It plays into the idea that workers should feel lucky to even have a job in an effort to undermine their dignity and their basic right to make a living and have control over their work. Sure, all businesses will be affected by some of the direct action tactics used by workers when they organize, including strikes, but this is a necessary part of forcing people in power to relinquish the power that does not belong to them. At Jimmy John’s, the company threatened to do away with bike delivery, claiming they would be unable to afford the insurance policy with the added cost of having a union. Similarly, the collective at Sisters’ Camelot threatened to replace the canvassers with volunteers.

When it comes to Sisters’ Camelot, this argument is simply ludicrous. Few of the canvassers’ demands are economic; most are structural and related to improving workplace democracy. The only two non-negotiable money-related demands are professional van maintenance and medical bills paid for work-related injuries. Professional van maintenance is a no-brainer. Without a reliably functioning van, canvassers have had shortened and missed shifts; since the canvassers raise 95 percent of the organization’s operating budget, this obviously affects the organization’s financial status. As far as medical bills go, it’s a basic worker’s right. All employees should be entitled to workers’ compensation for workplace injuries, and if Sisters’ Camelot refuses to accept this demand, they are worse than even the most sinister corporation by taking advantage of their contracted workers.

There are also negotiable demands that indisputably will increase productivity within the canvass operation, such as accepting credit card donations at the door. Other demands will improve the canvasser’s experiences at work and encourage them to do better work, like paid sick days and vacation, a 5 percent base pay raise, an extra bonus for working four shifts per week in addition to raising $500 per week, and access for the canvass coordinator to view online donations. All of these ideas would encourage canvassers to invest themselves more strongly in their work, which directly affects the income of the organization as a whole. The primary reason for opposing these demands is not financial; it is because of a lack of trust that, like Jimmy John’s, is a backward, classist, and selfish tendency that is keeping Sisters’ Camelot from truly realizing its alleged goal as a worker-controlled organization.

The last point related to money is simple: no demand costs an organization more than an anti-union drive. The collective has attempted to paint the economic demands of the union as too costly to the organization. This anti-union drive is costing Sisters’ Camelot far more money than they would incur by giving the workers a 5 percent raise and increase in their fundraising bonuses. In fact, the organization itself is on the brink of collapse. Programming has been cut, they are planning on moving out of their warehouse space and the collective members can’t even afford to pay themselves anymore.

At Jimmy John’s, the bosses spent about $3,000 a day over the course of a month and a half on a union-busting consulting firm called the Labor Relations Institute. They also spent an incredible amount of money on lawyers and legal fees fighting the Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges we filed against them. Additionally, the pickets we held at stores, the phone blasts we did that shut down overthe- phone delivery orders at stores, and the negative media attention the company received during the union drive certainly reduced their revenue. In all, simply giving us what we were demanding (a $1 per hour raise for all drivers and supervisors and a $2 per hour raise for all in-shoppers) would have cost them less money than fighting us for so long. The threat that unions will bring financial hardship to a company is typically nothing but an empty threat to scare the workers.

The IWW is an aggressive organization with scary politics that is using you to achieve its political agenda. They will harass and trick you. We can protect you from them.

In all union drives, unions in general are criticized (even while praised, as mentioned earlier). Attention will be drawn to various aspects of unions that can be framed in an unpopular light. These aspects include expensive mandatory union dues, union bureaucrats making decisions on the workers’ behalf, a complicated grievance process, and dues money being given to politicians without the workers’ input.

In the IWW, none of these criticisms apply since our union doesn’t share those characteristics common to other unions. Instead, we Wobblies are criticized in other ways. Most commonly we are redbaited. At Jimmy John’s, we were called radicals, anarchists, communists, socialists, anti-capitalists, anti-Americans, terrorists (yes, seriously!), troublemakers, zealots and so on. We were told that we were being aggressive toward the company and attempting to bully the bosses into submission. We were accused of violent tactics including sabotaging the company’s equipment and inventory of products. During our sick day campaign and subsequent firings, the company’s lawyers tried to argue our campaign for sick days constituted extortion.

At Sisters’ Camelot, similar accusations have been levied against the canvassers. They have been accused of being aggressive and being bullies for simply making demands and going on strike after the collective refused to negotiate with them. When the canvassers escalated and turned up the pressure, the collective members (and their friends who were also targeted) became downright hysterical. At Jimmy John’s, when we announced ourselves as the Jimmy John’s Workers Union (JJWU) and presented our demands, the bosses thought we were being aggressive. When we actually became aggressive, our bosses demonized us even more. However, they did begin to give in on some demands, including less tangible ones like better treatment of workers by management. The lesson to be learned here is that bosses don’t respond to simple requests to change things at work. They aren’t convinced by others moralizing or arguing with them. They are convinced when it’s in their own self-interest to change. And that usually comes about when severe economic, social, and/or emotional pressure is put on them. Exerting these types of pressure was the JJWU strategy and it is also the Sisters’ Camelot Canvass Union’s strategy, and the strategy of all militant unions.

A cornerstone in the union busting arsenal, used by the bosses against unions of all stripes including the IWW, is to paint the union as a separate entity from the workers themselves with a separate agenda from the workers. We call this “third party-ing” the union.

At Jimmy John’s, this message was a core part of the bosses’ narrative. In one of the company’s propaganda posters they stated the IWW was using the workers to advance our political cause and the company was helping the workers’ cause.

Sisters’ Camelot and their supporters have also painted the IWW as a third party with an agenda separate from the workers. When the strike first started, members of the community publicly attacked the IWW for “going after” Sisters’ Camelot, saying we were racist and that we are against poor people. Notice they didn’t say this about the canvassers themselves, just the IWW. This implies two things. First, it implies the IWW has a sinister motive that is separate from the canvassers’ struggle to gain control over their work environment. Second, it implies that the IWW is really the one in the driver’s seat and not the canvassers. In reality, the canvassers make all their own decisions. They don’t need to have their decisions or strategies approved by any other IWW body. While individual Wobblies offer advice and input, the canvassers themselves call all the shots. This narrative constructed by the Sisters’ Camelot collective and their supporters ignores the agency of the canvassers and implies that a union campaign involves a group of professionals that parachute in and rescue workers instead of a struggle involving those directly affected.

There is a certain individual that is causing problems for all of us. They are hostile, manipulative and disruptive, and they are destroying our relationship with you. They have ulterior motives. We will all be better off without them.

In many union drives, certain individuals and/or social groups will be singled out and scapegoated as the main agitators and instigators to delegitimize the union campaign. This, among other things, takes the focus off the experiences, grievances and demands of the workers.

At Jimmy John’s, certain organizers were singled out due to their well-known pasts as IWW organizers in other high profile union campaigns. Additionally, there were attempts to marginalize certain social groups that were seen as the home base of the core organizers of the campaign. Attempts were made by the company to paint the union as young, white male delivery drivers from the Southside of Minneapolis. When the company decided to clean house and fire a group of core organizers after a very threatening escalation tactic taken by the union surrounding a sick day campaign, the bosses specifically decided to fire only six workers, all of whom were white and male from the same social scene. The core organizers who were women or people of color were only disciplined, but not fired. As a result, the company was able to frame a narrative of the union being for certain workers and not others. The phrase “drivers’ union” became common in the shop among workers who became convinced of the boss’s narrative and is still used by many workers who weren’t part of the campaign at its height.

At Sisters’ Camelot, a very similar anti-union message has been created. Instead of addressing the workers’ actual demands, the Sisters’ Camelot managing collective shifted the focus to one worker who they accused of theft, being abusive, and manipulating the rest of the canvassers into forming the union. The collective and their supporters have continually made the entire struggle about this one worker and not about the concerns of all of the workers. This is done to distract people from the real issues at stake—the experiences, grievances, and demands of the workers.

The Dirty Truth: Bosses Will Lie.

A final characteristic of anti-union campaigns is a barrage of lies and halftruths coming from management. At Jimmy John’s, our committee spent an enormous amount of energy refuting the spin management put on the organizing campaign. The aftermath of the Jimmy John’s union recognition election is an excellent example. After we narrowly lost our union election, but ULPs against the company nullified its results, the company put out a statement addressing the election and subsequent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) settlement resulting from the ULPs. In the statement, they claimed the NLRB only found merit with one-third of all the ULPs we filed. In reality, they only investigated one-third of the ULPs and found merit with all but two of them (out of more than 20). The NLRB found these ULPs to be sufficient to rule the election null and void. If the company had decided to go to court instead of taking a settlement, the NLRB would have investigated the rest of the ULPs. The statement also claimed that we admitted in the settlement that the company committed no wrongdoing. In reality, the settlement contained a clause stating the company is not admitting to violating Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (which protects concerted activity of workers), which both parties agreed to. The NLRB explained to us this was a standard clause in all settlements involving first-time offenders of Section 7.

The Sisters’ Camelot collective published an FAQ and a letter making several claims that are manipulative and spun to hide the truth. For instance, they claimed that their collective is open, and anyone who meets the requirements can join. What they conveniently omitted was the fact that any collective member can block any potential applicant from joining for any reason. The collective has also claimed that none of the collective members are paid. In reality, the position of collective member is a non-paid volunteer position, but all the current collective members also hold paid positions within the organization which only collective members can hold. In another statement, the collective claimed that the canvassers’ union went on strike about an hour after giving their demands. This statement failed to mention that the collective flat-out refused to negotiate with the union, which caused the strike to happen. Similarly, at the NLRB trial to reinstate the fired canvasser, a collective member testified that the canvassers wanted a few of their demands met the first day of negotiations. She also claimed the canvassers said they were going to go on strike at the beginning of negotiations. The reality is quite different. The canvassers asked the collective to pick one or two demands that they could begin negotiations on that day. The canvassers didn’t say they wanted the collective to agree to those demands that day. Furthermore, the canvassers stated at the beginning of the negotiations they were willing to go on strike if the collective refused to negotiate in good faith. These are but a few examples of the many lies and half-truths the collective has spun to manipulate the truth. In doing so, they behaved as any other boss: with dishonesty and manipulation.

This strike, which continues to drag on, has revealed many things about the nature of the Sisters’ Camelot organization, its bosses, and those so-called “radicals” in the community who support the status quo at Sisters’. Those who have defended the collective have done so largely in blind defense of the collective model. And in doing so, they have caused the organization to nearly be destroyed.

No matter how much Sisters’ Camelot claims to be anti-authoritarian, their actions speak more truth than the identities they subscribe to. In doing so, they have proven they are no better than the bosses at Jimmy John’s.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2013)

  • 1. Admin correction: Article first appeared on The Organizer, the Twin Cities IWW's blog, in July 2013

Industrial Worker (November 2013)

Articles from the November 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit the IW page at iww.org

For a PDF copy of this issue, check here.

Re-remembering the Mexican IWW

An article by J Pierce on the history of the Mexican IWW.

The history we tell ourselves about the Mexican IWW is quite brief. Two events are most often repeated that carry the IWW banner: the Insurrectos that invaded Baja, Calif., and proclaimed the Tijuana Commune in 1911, which included amongst them Joe Hill; and the “Tampico General Strike,” of which most of us know very little.

Additionally, we hold up Ricardo Flores Magon, his brother Enrique and the Partido Liberal Mexicana (PLM) as somewhat of a stand-in for the Mexican IWW. “Well, the IWW and the PLM had many dual members and they were anarchists so they were like the IWW in Mexico, basically,” we say to those who inquire.

However, it was only while I was reading Norman Caulfield’s book, “Mexican Workers and the State: From the Porfiriato to NAFTA,” did this general sketch of the Mexican IWW come into full view as wholly inadequate. This book has been sold by the IWW’s Literature Department for nigh on 10 years, yet I suspect that many of us have never read it. “Mexican Workers” is a treasure trove of research into the extensive IWW organizing and fighting all over Mexico and the borderlands from the 1900s to the 1920s.

It is true that the IWW in Mexico and the American Southwest was intimately linked with our allies, the PLM and the Casa del Obrero Munidal (COM), as well as with the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) and the communists at times. However, it is not necessary to conflate these organizations; Los Trabajadores Industriales del Mundo (the Spanish translation of “Industrial Workers of the World”) has its own wealth of history in Mexico. In particular, I would like to highlight the names of individual Mexican Wobblies so that we can research them and induct them into our IWW hall of fame, so to speak.

La Prensa del IWW Mexicana

There existed a bonafide IWW in Mexico and a constant flow of Mexican IWWs to and from the United States. These workers created fearless newspapers such as: La Unión Industrial, produced in Phoenix starting in 1909; Huelga General, out of Los Angeles in 1913-1914; Solidaridad and Nueva Solidaridad, from Chicago; and El Obrero Industrial, produced in Mexico City in 1919. These publications made their way all over Mexico. Caulfield’s research found mention of these IWW newspapers in complaints of government agents and company managers to their superiors in the United States. These IWW newspapers showed up in rebellious districts in Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Coahuila, Chihuahua and Sonora.

Tamaulipas

Oil and marine transport workers in Tampico were constantly engaged in struggle under the banner of the IWW throughout the 1910s and early 1920s. Most likely, the IWW idea was brought to the Tampico area by sailors from the Marine Transport Workers’ Industrial Union (IU). FWs Pedro Coria (from Arizona), Ramón Parreno, Francisco Gamallo, Rafael Zamudio, Victor Martinez and Jose Zapata are all names that emerged from the constant strikes and agitation in Tampico.

In April 1916, mass protests erupted to improve working and living conditions led by the IWW and COM members. These demonstrations turned into a strike that shut down most of the oil companies and public facilities in the area. A year later, in April 1917, another IWW-led strike broke out against El Aguila, an oil company. In the ensuing months, the El Aguila strike spread to at least six other petroleum companies as well as to longshore workers and boatmen, resulting in a general strike of 15,000 workers and halting all oil production. The strike was violently repressed but another large strike in November 1917 was launched after the workers regrouped. In July 1920, the IWW along with the COM fomented yet another general strike of 10,000 oil workers.

Coahuila, Monterrey and Sonora

FW Ramon Cornejo organized textile workers in Villa de Santiago, Monterrey. Andres de León was one IWW leader active in Torreón, Coahuila, where the IWW is reported to have had five branches of metal workers in 1912. One name to emerge from the strikes in Cananea, Sonora, was IWW organizer Antonio C. Ramirez who helped lead the three-week strike of October 1920 against the Cananea Consolidated Copper Company.

Mexico City

With their headquarters established in Mexico City in 1919, Jose Refugio Rodriguez and Wenceslao Espinoza were two of the Mexico City IWWs who published El Obrero Industrial and attempted to establish a national presence for the IWW. Other names associated with the IWW in Mexico, perhaps in Mexico City, included Walter Fortmeyer and A. Sortmary, who were both deported as the Mexican government tried to crack down on foreign agitators, and Benito Pavon, Edmundo Ibarra and Pablo Ollo.

Chihuahua

Five thousand smelter workers struck at Santa Eulalia in Chihuahua in 1924. Three of the IWW strike leaders there were Francisco Morales, Enrique Castillo and Francisco Nuñez. At Los Lamentos, Marcos Martinez, Jesus Gonzalez, Basilio Pedroza and Pascual Diaz, who was the branch secretary for Metal Mine Workers IU 210, were all thrust into leadership during strike waves there. During strikes in Santa Barbara, Chihuahua, FWs Eduardo Modesto Flores, Alfredo Lugo and Albert Fodor were all active organizers.

Many of the radical miners in Chihuahua were those who had worked higher-paying jobs in Arizona and had joined the IWW there. The mining bosses complained that “Arizona Mexicans” were “overrunning” the mining districts of Chihuahua, spreading their radical ideas of higher wages, expropriation of foreign companies, and workers’ self-management.

Arizona

As the Western Federation of Miners drifted to the right politically (as did its successor, the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers), Mexican American miners in Arizona’s copper mines were leaving these unions and joining the IWW’s Metal Mine Workers’ IU, at that time called Local No. 800. By 1917, the IWW claimed a membership of 5,000 Mexican American miners. Mexican American miners helped established IWW branches in Bisbee, Jerome and Ajo. Mexicans were the core leadership of the IWW miners in Globe-Miami, which claimed 700 dues-paying members including Italians, Finns, Poles and Anglos and would gather on “Wobbly Hill” during strikes and demonstrations.

Phoenix Local No. 272 produced leaders such as Guillermo Velarde, Javier Buitimea, Jacinto Barrera and branch secretary Rosendo A. Dorame. In the mining towns, Wobblies Julio Blanco and José Rodríguez were active in Globe-Miami, and Abelardo Ordoñez was active in Morenci. FW Fernando Palomares, a Mayo Indian and a Magonista, participated in both the El Paso smelter strike as well as the Bisbee copper strike of 1917 that lead to the infamous Bisbee Deportation.

California

Los Angeles Local No. 602 has an extensive Mexican IWW history, rich enough to warrant further articles. This branch was a swarming beehive of revolutionary activity surrounding Mexico and the borderlands. It was in Los Angeles where PLMistas and IWWs prepared for the invasion of Baja, Calif., and printed a wealth of agitational material that helped spur the Mexican Revolution.

In addition to Huelga General, workers relied upon FW Aurelio Azuara’s unofficial paper, El Rebelde , to bring them IWW news coverage. Other IWW organizers associated with the Los Angeles branch include Primo Tapia de la Cruz, Julio Castillo, Tomás Martínez, B. Negreira, Feliz Cedeño, Manuel Rey and Liunitas Gutiérrez.

Nunca Olvidamos

The goal of this article is to highlight the names of individual Wobblies who organized and fought on both sides of the border and to help bring this history into our contemporary recollection. Further articles and research will help us incorporate these Wobblies and their rich history into our work. For starters, let’s remember one Wobbly who we lost too early: FW Marcos Martinez, an IWW organizer, killed by police as they shot into an open air meeting of striking copper miners on June 30, 1924, in Los Lamentos, Chihuahua, Mexico.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2013)

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IWW members who fought in the Spanish Civil War

Originally appearing in the Industrial Worker, a short piece by Matt White on some of the IWW members who died during the Spanish Civil War.

Not surprisingly, a number of Wobblies went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Several served with the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), while it appears the bulk served in the International Brigades. Wobblies such as Mike Raddock, Ray Steele and then-future Industrial Worker editor Pat Read acquired reputations as some of the finest soldiers in the 15th International Brigade. Records from the Spanish Civil War and 1930s IWW are incomplete, making it impossible to know with any certainty how many Wobblies went to Spain. I’ve discovered over 20 people who either listed themselves as Wobblies or who others remembered as Wobblies. Of that group of Wobblies, eight were killed in Spain and one died shortly after he returned from Spain from wounds he received there. For reasons unknown, the Industrial Worker never commemorated the deaths of five of the nine fellow workers listed here. So this November, 75 years since the last act of the Spanish Civil War, we remember.

Heinrich Bortz. According to his obituary in the Oct. 23, 1937 issue of the Industrial Worker: “Fellow worker Bortz was a German and belonged to the I.W.W. [sailors’] branch in Stettin.” The obituary related that the Nazis threw Bortz into a concentration camp. Bortz then escaped the camp and made his way to Denmark and then to Sweden. In Sweden he continued to be active in radical labor. In 1936 he traveled to Spain and joined the CNT’s Durruti International Battalion where he was killed in action.

Ted Dickinson. Dickinson joined the Australian IWW in 1923 and edited the Australian IWW paper, Direct Action. Dickinson was jailed for his IWW activities. Dickinson went to England shortly after his release from prison in the late 1920s. Dickinson joined the British Battalion of the International Brigades and was second in command of the second company. In 1937, he was captured and executed by the fascists.

Harry F. Owens. Owens was an outspoken anarchist sailor who joined the IWW in 1921 after he became infuriated with the conduct of the International Seamen’s Union. Before Owens left for Spain, he helped lead an IWW strike against a ship carrying goods to the fascists in Spain. There is not too much information about Owens in Spain, but he was a member of the Lincoln Battalion and was killed sometime in mid-1937.

Louis Rosenberg. According to his death notice from the CNT, Louis Rosenberg was killed in action with the Durruti International Battalion of the 26th Division, on the Aragon front, June 16, 1937. Rosenberg was 24 years old and joined the IWW Industrial Union (IU) 120 Timber Workers at Port Arthur, Ontario. He took part in the Thunder Bay strike of 1934 and the Algoma District strike of 1935. His obituary mentions an unnamed Pennsylvania anarchist who was killed at the same time.

Lawrence K. Ryan. Ryan was the Las Vegas branch secretary in the early 1930s. In that role he would have been involved in the Boulder Dam organizing drive. Ryan was an early Lincoln Battalion volunteer who was severely wounded during the Feb. 27, 1937, attack at Jarama.

According to his friend D.P. Stephens, Ryan died a year later in Canada, probably related to his Jarama wound.

Herbert Schlessinger. In an interview, Schlessinger claimed to have been a liaison between the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP) and the IWW, which makes perfect sense as the SUP had an alliance with the IWW during the latter half of the 1930s into the 1940s. He was killed in action with Lincoln Battalion in the latter part of 1938.

Ivan Alroy Silverman. Silverman was a member of the IWW construction workers in Los Angeles. Silverman arrived in Spain during the latter half of 1937 and was a member of the Lincoln Battalion. Silverman was listed as killed at Gandesa in April 1938.

Raymond Albert Steele. Steele was another Wobbly seaman. According to Lincoln Battalion veteran Dave Smith, “Ray Steele always expounded on the superiority of direct action as a tactic.” Steele was fondly remembered as one of the best soldiers in the Lincoln Battalion and one of the best machine gunners of the Tom Mooney Machine Gun Company. According to International Brigades records, he was killed on July 15, 1937, during the Brunete campaign. There are several different versions of Steele’s death, but the consensus view is that he was killed by a sniper.

Robert Charles Watts. Watts was a Gulf port sailor when he volunteered for Spain. He claimed to have served in the Mexican Army in the 1920s. He served in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and was killed in action in late March or early April of 1938.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2013)

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Industrial Worker (December 2013)

Articles from the December 2013 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

For paper subscription info, please visit iww.org

For a PDF copy of issue, check here.

Valuable lessons learned from 1935 play “Waiting for Lefty”

An article by Brandon Oliver about a 1935 play about workers intending to strike.

I was recently pleasantly surprised to see that the local community college in Minneapolis was putting on Clifford Odets’ 1935 play, “Waiting for Lefty.” It turns out that it was also presented in London this year after a 30-year absence, so perhaps there is something in the play that speaks to the current moment. The Minneapolis production also took the admirable step of arranging contemporary union members or labor activists to speak after each performance. Normally, I don’t think that cultural review is the biggest priority for the Industrial Worker, but seeing the play live did start me thinking about some things that I think are important for our organization.

First, I’ll give a little background on “Waiting for Lefty.” It seems like it was a pretty famous play in its time (supposedly, the first performance sparked a riot in Manhattan), but it seems to have faded from public knowledge. I wouldn’t have known anything about it before the performance, except that FW John O’Reilly recommended I read it last year. Odets sets the play up as a meeting of a taxi drivers’ union in New York City, with only one item on the agenda: a strike. Although I thought some of the characters had the depth of sock puppets, Odets pulled off a stroke of technical-political genius by having the play occur within a union meeting. There is no fourth wall to break as some of the cast members sit within the audience and sing “Solidarity Forever,” shout disagreements with the union boss, or get roughed up by goons.

The plot is pretty simple. The union boss, Harry Fatt, addresses the talk of a strike and tries to reassure everyone that “now that we’ve got our boy in the White House, we can’t go out.” Of course, he would have supported a strike under the previous administration, but since “Roosevelt has our back, it’s our duty to have his.” With his armed goons behind him, he goes on to blast the “reds” in the union, saying that he’s coming for them.

Members start shouting out for Lefty, the head of the strike committee, but he’s not there. The four other members come up to speak one by one, and each of them has a vignette explaining why they are in favor of striking now. Of the four, one is a doctor who was fired for being Jewish and another was a chemist who did not want to make poison gas. Although his attempt to tie in other parts of society might have made political sense in some ways, this effort detracts from the idea that this is a struggle being led by workers. It’s unlikely that half of the taxi drivers were declassed intellectuals, so why write half of their leaders to be? However, Odets did say later that he’d “never been near a strike” and wanted to use the strike story to discuss many of the problems with capitalist society. After the flashbacks, a union member bursts in to announce that Lefty’s been found—behind the dispatcher’s office with a bullet in his head. The strike committee, with the unanimous support of everyone but Fatt, declares that the strike will begin. Odets uses Lefty’s death to argue that we can’t wait for militant and charismatic leaders to come save us; we have to run our struggles ourselves.

The play’s presentation as an actual union meeting proves to be its most interesting quality. As critics at the time pointed out, part of what was so engaging about the play for so many spectators was that it mirrored their experiences so well— coming to the union in search of a way to stand up to the bosses, seeing confrontations between entrenched bureaucrats and militant workers, and ending dynamically in either repression or some kind of victory.

How many union members today would recognize their experiences in this play? From my own experience in a business union, I would guess the percentage is probably close to zero. If anything, people who have never had any experience with unions would probably be more likely to recognize the scenes as similar to what unions look like in movies and on TV. This is an important change to be conscious of, because, although unions look the same externally, they have lost their meaning in the years between 1935 and 2013. At one moment, even the most problematic unions were a battleground between militant workers and “labor fakirs,” as bureaucrats used to be called. In 1935 maybe it was still possible to kick out all the bosses like Fatt, tell the president not to wait up for us, and turn the unions around. However, 70 years of government collaboration and workplace contractualism has made them such dusty upholders of the status quo that it would take a more creative mind than Odets’ to imagine them leading or inspiring a new workers movement. A local officer of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) spoke after the show and hammered the above point about the play home. While I was impressed that the cast reached out to labor and union activists, it quickly became clear that this one, at least, had more in common with boss Fatt than with Lefty. The resemblance began with the exhortations that our only weapon for stopping the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) was to “write our congressperson.” Some audience and cast members asked why APWU wasn’t preparing for a strike and the speaker said that “it’s illegal.” The speaker then let slip that the USPS has casual employees and a twotier system, and after another Wobbly (and dual carder) that I was with pushed on it she confirmed that their union contract made these concessions.

I’ve been an IWW for long enough that I thought I was pretty well inoculated against the business unions. However, hearing how anti-combative they are from their own representative is somehow much more powerful than hearing it from another Wobbly.

The business unions aren’t just good unions gone bad; they are literally zombies— shells that appear to still be alive but with all of their internal dynamic and thought process gone, destroyed by repeated doses of the poison known as the National Labor Relations Act. Finally, they have become incapable of acting out of the bounds that their poisoners have set. We can’t “recapture” or replace them (that is, not at administering the contract).

Our task has to be to show a different path, as a permanent fighting workers’ organization. We should also be visibly putting out our revolutionary message at events like this. Don’t get me wrong—between a branch that focuses on workplace organizing and one that focuses on outreach, I’ll take the organizing branch every day. However, as FW MK explains dialectics, there’s “what’s going on,” “what’s really going on,” and “what’s really, really going on,” which brings back the moment of truth from “what’s going on.” We can bring forward a powerful message as long as it’s rooted in experience of work and organizing, rather than pure ideology. We should become more intentional about bringing this message forward because we can’t become the organization we need to be if our only activity is organizing at our individual workplaces. The business unions don’t have any plan or desire to change the status quo, let alone rupture it. If we regain the confidence that our fellow workers had in the 1930s to proclaim publicly and loudly what we’re about and organize aggressively, then we can once again help to initiate a widespread fighting workers’ movement that brings the bosses—whether in the unions, government, or workplaces—to their knees.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2013)

The contract as a tactic

An article from the Industrial Worker newspaper advocating formal, written contracts with employers as a goal for IWW campaigns. We do not agree with this article but reproduce for reference.

The legacy of the IWW is one without labor contracts. In the era before there was a legal structure for unions to win legal recognition against the employers’ wishes, unions either made sweetheart deals with the boss or maintained standards through their own organizational strength. The IWW chose to eschew collaboration with the boss and focus on organizing workers. It was a strategy that worked in some cases, allowing us to improve standards in mining and logging towns, but it also cost us in places like Lawrence, Mass., where, despite a large and militant strike, without a contract the work remained one of low wages and sweatshop conditions.

Many people believe that the IWW is ideologically opposed to contracts or does not have any. Actually, today the union has several contracts that cover workers at domestic violence call centers, a recycling plant, the staff at a United Auto Workers local, and retail locations.

I would like to argue that contracts, like other tactics such as strikes, pickets, boycotts, slow-downs, press conferences, teach-ins, etc., can be used as part of long-term campaigns to raise the standards of living for workers, raise the ability of workers to have a say and control in their workplace, and act as a publicity piece to promote the IWW’s brand of direct and democratic unionism. Contracts can be especially useful in high-turnover industries, where they can lock in basic pro-worker conditions regardless of turnover and make it easier for the union to talk to new workers and raise their class consciousness.

Many other unions treat contracts as an end. Their primary goal is to achieve a contract with a company where there was none before. This can lead them to agree to sweetheart deals with the company without engaging workers, or to organize workers with a limited and narrow goal of what they can achieve.

One of the IWW’s goals is worker control of the economy. When we get there, we won’t need business owners with whom to have contracts. However, we don’t have the strength or organizational capacity to completely do away with the capitalist class today. We have to wage battles that grow the working class’ understanding and acceptance of our ability to do more than just be cogs in someone else’s machine.

While other unions see the signing of a contact as something that guarantees labor peace for the employer, we must see the signing of a contract not as an end to struggle, but a beginning. We will still have to struggle to enforce the pro-worker provisions of the contract, we will have to work to undermine any provisions of the contract that give the boss power, and we will have to work to organize workers in the shop covered by the contract to continue to fight for better conditions and more worker control. We will also have to spread propaganda among workers in other shops to encourage them to organize for their own improvements in conditions and achieve worker control.

A contract fight can be a framework for discussing what workers want their jobs and workplace to be, starting with surveying workers and discussing what they do and do not like about their work conditions, and then bringing those demands to bargaining while mobilizing and flexing the workers’ strength until a contract is won. We can repeat the process, continuing to discuss what was achieved and codified in a contract and what needs to still be done.

Workers must own the contract campaign process: they must elect their bargaining representatives, receive and be engaged with negotiation updates, take action to pressure the boss on specific demands, and have the final vote on whether to accept the contract and for how long.

There may be some back and forth. The union can rank its issues for negotiating what is required to even consider the contract and what is completely unacceptable, but the union can also rank some of the less black-and-white issues to know better what can be negotiated and on what they need to stand firm. The union can break its issues into different categories to consider as well: wages, work conditions, training, benefits, grievance procedures, and organizing and mobilizing tactics.

While some have an all-or-nothing mentality, I think that it makes more sense for workers to take what they can get now and use those expanded resources to fight for even more.

A contract will not likely codify our absolute victory over the capitalist class, and at times it could be a distraction, but so can many other tactics when they are elevated to the level of strategy. Striking for the sake of going on strike won’t help us achieve our goals any more than will bargaining for the sake of a contract. The product of contract negotiations will essentially specify the current balance of forces between the boss and the union.

Some may say that by agreeing to a labor contract with an employer the union is collaborating with the boss, conceding defeat in the class struggle, or agreeing to a ceasefire between workers and the boss. I don’t think so, at least not any more so than is going on strike for a specific demand such as a pay raise or to pressure the boss to rehire illegally fired workers. Further, most union contracts have a variety of rules, such as grievance procedures, that boost workers’ ability to challenge the boss’s authority. Enforcement of these provisions is often an important way for unions to engage workers, keep them organizing, and to highlight the ways in which the boss is trying to rob workers of their rights and dignity.

Other opponents of labor contracts argue that a contract limits the union and the specific tactics it is allowed to use. Many unions, for example, agree to no-strike clauses in contracts for the duration of the contract. I don’t think that a contract necessarily has to give up any tactics that the union wants to hold on to. A contract will only limit the union to the extent that we allow it to or allow the boss to limit us. At the end of the day, we don’t have to agree to anything that we don’t want to.

If the employer violates a part of the agreement, we won’t necessarily be expected to not respond in kind. Further, contracts expire. A two- or three-yearlong contract can give us the opportunity to regroup our strength, gather our forces, outline a new battle strategy, organize around it, and prepare for a new contract fight with the intentions of expanding workers’ power. Also, it takes time to organize around issues and convince all the workers at a shop to take a particular action on a particular point. Sometimes it might make sense for the union, understanding that it may not be able to organize workers, to commit to “X,” “Y” or “Z” tactic within a certain period of time, and to agree to give up such a tactic in a contract, until such a time that the union is capable of deploying it.

Workers may not be able to win everything they want with the first contract, but they can use what they do get to provide some sense of stability. In many ways, if workplace conditions are a building, organizing is the scaffolding for that building and a labor contract is the blueprint. Once the building is up, we can always remodel it, and when the time comes, we can tear it down and build a new structure. But when we do, we’ll have had the experience of building before to learn from and go off of.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2013)

How I got fired and won my job back

An article from an IWW organizer about his organizing that led to his being fired and returned to work.

The Termination

Arriving to work, I entered through the break room as usual. There, awaiting me was my manager who immediately said that we needed to talk. He told me not to put away my bag; I couldn’t get ready for my shift like I usually did. I asked him if this was a disciplinary meeting but he did not respond directly to the question. He just said, “We need to talk. This will just take a minute.” While walking through the production floor I greeted co-workers as I usually do and I followed my manager into his office. Seeing that no one else was in the office, I asked, “Is someone from HR [Human Resources] going to be here?” He barked back at me, “This is coming straight from HR.” I then asked him if I could have a co-worker in the meeting with me. He denied this request, responding, “Hmmm, no.”

Immediately after the door closed, my manager informed me “this” wasn’t working out, perhaps justifying this by stating I was “clearly unhappy” here. He went through a cursory explanation of paperwork and stated that I was terminated. I did not agree with the judgments and told him so; and when instructed to sign a termination form I refused.

I inquired if the termination was a result of my work performance. “No. You’re a great worker, but a bad employee,” he replied. While still in shock at what was happening, I had enough sense to ask some follow-up questions and see what he’d reveal. Foremost, I was curiously struck by that explicit worker/employee distinction he mentioned, and so I asked him about it. He elaborated that while I was a “leader” on the crew, I was nonetheless disrespectful to the owners. For example he cited the frustration I’ve expressed to other co-workers, including him, about how the owners leave their week-old dirty dishes from the office by the sink and neglect to wash them. With that I readily pointed out how he and everyone else complain to me about just that practice as well.

“They’re the owners, and it doesn’t matter,” he replied.

“Can I work my shift or am I fired?” I asked to clarify that firing was, in fact, underway.

I was told no, I could not work my shift. I inquired if the company would approve my unemployment, to which he responded affirmatively.

I’ve had many a nightmare about being fired from this job; and have thought at length about what I would do should that day arrive. Having seen how managers call unsuspecting co-workers to cover shifts for workers walking into termination, and how they wait for their target to arrive through the break room, I recognized what was happening to me. Previously, when my departmental co-workers and I were better-organized, we discussed what we’d do if one of us was fired for a collective action we’d taken.

First, we’d obviously ask for a witness, and wouldn’t sign anything presented to us. Next, the fired worker would do everything they legally could to stay on the premises and speak with as many co-workers as possible about what just happened. If organizers were on shift, they’d act immediately to stop work and call for an on-site meeting with management. Unfortunately, at the time of my firing our campaign was at a lull. We weren’t taking collective actions on the shared and specific issues (staffing levels, holiday bonuses, profit sharing, etc.) usually discussed on the floor. As a result, I was making the rookie organizer mistake of talking shit about working conditions but not taking any collective actions to back things up. Therefore, management was able to spin a narrative of me being detrimental to morale and to justify firing me accordingly.

The timing of my firing was a further disadvantage for us. My fellow organizer was on vacation and another ally worker had just voluntarily left the company a week earlier. This left me with little immediate support in my department, so there was no one to organize a work stoppage in direct response. In hindsight, after receiving the termination notice, I probably should have immediately walked out and gathered my co-workers, so we could read it together, and thereby avoid management’s typical trap of trying to get me to say something I’d regret within the emotionally charged closed-door meeting.

When I did walk out of the office, I immediately sought my departmental co-workers. As I tried to explain what just happened to one I’d worked alongside for three years, the anger, rage and disbelief inhabiting me turned to sadness and confusion. We hugged, made plans to call each other later and I then went on to have the same emotional conversation another dozen or so times with other co-worker friends onsite. During these conversations I could see the shock and fear in their faces. Having worked for the company for five years, all of them knew this wasn’t about work performance; but was another example of the company retaliating against workers who speak up and pushing out those who they didn’t like. But, without a planned response, or an organizer already prepared to lead one, solidarity had to assume the simpler forms of hugs and handshakes. Yet, to make sure that everyone knew why I was fired, I made a copy of my termination form (on the office copier in front of the boss who just fired me) and passed it off to my co-workers (who in turn shared it with the afternoon crew). In hindsight, those individual conversations and the generalized sharing of the termination form proved extremely agitational for my fellow co-workers, and it assisted the campaign which would eventually develop to reclaim my job.

When I left the premises, I immediately called a co-worker and fellow organizer to confide my termination.

“What’s the plan?” he asked.

Still reeling from it, I didn’t know what to say. We made plans to meet for breakfast. In between chain smoking cigarettes and transferring buses on my way to the diner, I called and texted every current and former co-worker I knew and relayed to them what had happened.

When I sign people up to the IWW and am asked why I’m a member, part of my reply is consistent: “I know that if I get fired for organizing, I know that the union will be there to have my back and fight tooth-and-nail for me to get my job back.” Now that day had come, and for the next four months my fellow workers fulfilled that commitment beyond what I could’ve hoped and imagined.

The Committee Responds

During the first three weeks following my termination I distracted myself from the realities of unemployment by assisting the committee’s organizers in their efforts to reestablish my employment. As I said earlier, the campaign was at a lull. Yet, prior to my termination we’d been preparing a timeline to reset the organizing campaign. The night I got fired, the committee met with two other fellow workers and we had a focused conversation about our options for response. We distinguished two immediate options: 1) take this firing on the chin and keep the organizing underground or 2) make our first cross-department and cross-store action that would fight to regain my job. Since I was an outspoken worker on conditions of employment, we were confronted with the question: How could we respond to future issues or firing if we didn’t take action on my egregious firing? With a quiet acknowledgement of the immense work ahead of them, the committee decided action was necessary, even if they couldn’t win my job back. We suspected that the company was clearing house and another outspoken organizer would likely be terminated soon, too. And if that happened our position to respond would be further diminished.

Rather than limiting the demand to my reinstatement, we decided to expand it to include addressing the broader issue of the company’s subjective and usually unjust disciplinary procedures. This strategy proved beneficial. Our demands were constructed into a petition letter, coupled with a personal letter I’d written to my co-workers, addressing the charges used to terminate me. The demand for my reinstatement proved motivational for workers I was acquainted with; yet, the broader demand succeeded in acquiring the support of a vaster range of co-workers— who had presumably witnessed and/or experienced the company’s abusive disciplinary practices in the past.

foodservworkThe committee understood that we needed to move fast on the petition, while the issue was still vivid in co-workers’ minds. The anger, immediate and fiery, that grievances can ignite in a worker just as often dissipate when there’s no timely path forward for action: paralyzed resignation often results. So the committee set a few immediate goals to pursue: first, to coordinate a delegation of four to six workers and compose and have 25 workers sign a petition, ready for delivery within a week. Also, more timely, at our Food & Retail Workers United (FRWU) Industrial Organizing Committee (IOC) meeting the next day, the committee presented its escalation plan to other fellow workers for feedback. We then created a “social map” of our workplace and assigned shop organizers to meet with a few dozen co-workers we assessed as potential supporters of the petition.

As the fired worker, my role within the organizing campaign was threefold: 1) Assist with one-on-ones, 2) act as a general task monkey for the campaign’s needs and 3) prepare my case for the Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), if we decided to file. The first role was the most important: setting up one-on-one meetings and assisting with two-on-one meetings with fellow organizers. My usual role in these conversations was to act as the agitational force while my fellow organizer would conduct the education, inoculation and organization tasks. These conversations were highly emotional as we uncovered other grievances, stories of discipline gone awry and the immense fear co-workers had of losing their jobs. Naturally, workers brought up unionizing frequently. For me personally, the hardest component of the one-on-ones was asking a worker to sign the petition knowing I couldn’t definitely assure them I’d be present if or when they faced retaliation.

As the general task monkey, I spent most of my days at the IWW’s office, addressing peripheral tasks of the petition drive. The paperwork— coordinating translation of documents, making copies and getting them to organizers—was to be expected. I feel my most beneficial role was checking in with organizers multiple times a day about their one-on-ones. In those first two weeks, our committee members were regularly at the office brainstorming escalation strategies, one-on-one conversations, and how to reach out to more workers.

Altogether, 34 workers signed onto the petition demanding a forum on the company’s disciplinary procedure and my reinstatement. A week after I was fired, four organizers interrupted a meeting of our bosses, read aloud the demand letter and gave testimonials. Though noticeably uncomfortable, the employers remained confident in their power.

“We will never rehire Emmett,” an owner defiantly stated.

Mistaking the letter delivery as the culmination of our efforts rather than the first public step in an escalation plan, the bosses would soon be proven wrong as internal and external direct actions created an environment which forced the company to accept the NLRB’s determination and settle in my favor.

How I Got My Job Back

Before I detail my role in preparing for the ULP, let me stress another thing: our committee’s direct action escalation campaign and our ULP strategy were largely informed by the experience of assisting and bearing witness to a fellow worker in our branch who was fired a year earlier from another campaign. In that previous campaign, our fellow worker lost what we believed was a solid ULP charge, so everyone questioned whether my fate would differ. The ULP process is a roll of the dice, the NLRB must let working people win a round every now and again in order to maintain worker confidence in the system.

While the ULP process would take over three months, the unimaginable was seemingly about to happen: I was going back to work. I was surprised to be awarded a back-to-work order and a “merit” ruling, which meant the NLRB believed there was compelling evidence that I was retaliated against. Even more surprising news was that rather than further appealing the NLRB’s judgment the company expressed its interest in a settlement—including agreeing to my reinstatement. Though they first inquired if I’d accept a payout settlement, I had already informed the organizing committee and my NLRB agent that I wouldn’t agree to any settlement that didn’t include me going back to work. While at first my position on returning to work was based on principle and a desire to keep the organizing going, reinstatement became very personal as a way to reciprocate the mutual aid given to me by my co-workers. Just as an injury to one is an injury to all, my victory was a victory for all my co-workers.

So, how was this rather unthinkable outcome made a reality? I attribute it to four factors: 1) internal and external direct actions, 2) a solid ULP strategy, 3) training and an experienced community of organizers, and 4) the company’s own naiveté.

First, while I’ll likely never know exactly why management agreed to reinstate me, instinct tells me that without direct action it would never have happened. One thing I am 100 percent positive of is that, without internal direct action, my reinstatement would never have meant so much to my co-workers. The march on the boss, petition signatures, pins and magnets, plus all the time workers took out of their day to meet, brainstorm and motivate each other to take action: all effectively invested my co-workers in the situation. They became active agents within the process from which management had tried to exclude them. Furthermore, I believe the reason the company buckled to the NLRB had more to do with the visible shop floor actions, support and discussion regarding my case than a sternly-worded letter from the NLRB. With the message that I “won” the ULP floating in the air, if the company had appealed the decision they would have run the risk of polarizing the workplace further away from them and closer towards the organizing committee. This was the move that shop organizers were anticipating and which organizers were readying an escalated response to.

Externally, Wobblies within the FRWU-IOC created a Friends of Emmett Committee, tasked to develop a two-month escalation plan to mobilize customers and the community behind my cause. We knew such support would be vital to our morale as organizers and hopefully serve as a lightning rod for further internal action by workers. For every step of the escalation plan, Wobblies in the organizing committee and the friends committee considered how the actions would polarize the workers on the inside.

Our external strategy was largely informed by participation in solidarity actions for fired Wobblies over the course of the past few years. Some of these actions involved just a Wobbly on the job without a campaign, while others contained an underground organizing committee. Often in these previous efforts, organizers applied an immediate and aggressive public approach to both scenarios: the union or solidarity group would escalate almost instantaneously to pickets, rallies, and media coverage and thereby create a new set of obstacles. Organizers found it difficult to increase the intensity of pressure, maintain the frequency of actions, or win unorganized workers over to the side of the cause. While applying this full-throttle emotional and economic leverage can be effective in circumstances of wage theft and when a single Wobbly on the job is seeking settlement of wrongful termination, the presence of an underground organizing committee requires organizers to consider their level of reach within the workplace.

In assessing our committee’s width and depth within the several worksites, we concluded that our committee was too small to conduct public pickets without encountering the same campaign-stalling results mentioned earlier that previous campaigns experienced. The Friends of Emmett Committee developed a measured escalation plan that sought to escalate slowly and provide the opportunity for the external and internal campaigns to synthesize. Simply, organizers envisioned the Friends of Emmett Committee as a tool not to win my job back but to provide public cover for the organizing within the shop and help initiate action.

The first step in the external escalation plan, which coincidentally occurred the day after the company received the NLRB merit notification, was a customer delegation. A group of customers, organized by Friends of Emmett and which included a Wobbly from the FRWU-IOC, delivered and read to an owner in front of my co-workers (and a few random customers) a demand for my reinstatement. We placed the rest of the escalation plan, which included neighborhood postering, canvassing, hand-billing and second delegation, on hold until we heard back regarding if the company was willing to settle.

The second component I credit for my return to work was the ULP strategy the organizing committee developed with the assistance of fellow workers both locally and from across the country. Rather than rushing to the NLRB, I made the direct action campaign of my co-workers a top priority and brainstormed how/if the ULP process could be used to our advantage. As referred to earlier, this was my final role as the fired organizer. During the weeks prior to filing a complaint, I read through previous NLRB affidavits and consulted numerous fellow workers and allied labor lawyers to make sure my case was solid.

For days I went back and forth on the decision to file as the IWW. While the campaign wasn’t public, my involvement within the union was public outside of work. Ultimately, I decided not to file as the IWW or an independent union. Hunches and assumptions aside, I could not prove management knew anything about me being union. Therefore, if I couldn’t demonstrate it and management wasn’t going to offer it, then the NLRB agent wouldn’t be able to prove it. Bringing in the union at this point would only expose organizers to an anti-union campaign they were not effectively positioned to counter. Besides, most relevant to the ULP was keeping the NLRB agent focused on my best piece of documentation: management’s clear violation of an employee’s Section 7 rights, as observable in my termination form.

My charge accepted, I walked into the meeting with the NLRB agent, my affidavit testimony appropriately outlined with all supporting evidence prepared. With such preparation at hand, I was well positioned to substantiate a narrative beginning with me being labeled the head agitator of a petition delivery, continuing through with documented instances of managerial hostility toward me (hello, work journals!), and concluding with a managerial personnel change intended to isolate and, finally, terminate me. Yes, the temptation to go off-topic into other unverifiables was certainly there, but I stuck to responding only to the accusations found in the termination form.

Timing was again very strategic with the ULP. The day after management held an all-company discussion forum which was demanded by workers and in which the ownership defended my termination and their disciplinary procedure, the company received its first ever letter from the NLRB informing them of the investigation. As my fellow organizer told me later, the department manager looked like he was going to vomit when the owner brought him the news.

Next, significant credit for this victory must go to the IWW’s Organizer Training and the community of Wobbly organizers with whom I’m fortunate to share a General Membership Branch. You know how we talk a lot about documentation and those workplace ournals? Well, those were integral in getting my job back. In those journals and my day planners where I recorded all my one-on-one meetings, some dating back years, I was able to piece together a narrative for both my co-workers and for the NLRB. Furthermore, the numerous organizers I learned from in my years within the IWW gave me the skills to know how to respond, while the Wobbly community present around me assisted in the campaign’s strategy (not to mention countless burritos and timely funding from our Organizer Hardship Fund).

Finally, management arrogantly believed that their power would allow them to quietly terminate me and justify it however they saw fit. In doing so, management did most of the heavy lifting, polarizing my co-workers in support of me and giving enough evidence for the NLRB to side with my charge. Among the long list of judgments written on my termination form included documented instances when I was talking to co-workers about staffing levels, profit sharing and our absent holiday bonus. Certainly, I was not the only one who discussed these matters on the shop floor; the surprise withholding of our holiday bonus that year became a consistent topic of frustration and contempt for co-workers throughout the company.

Furthermore, I had participated in several direct actions in the past. One particularly important action involving our entire department was done just beyond the NLRB timeline for a ULP charge. I learned that one could effectively argue how latter individual actions could be protected under the law if judged to be extensions of a previous collective action.

However, this naiveté and arrogance by management will likely not be repeated so carelessly again. Since my firing, the company hired an experienced HR manager and has held several meetings with lawyers to ensure they’re never caught liable for an unlawful termination or any other charge of violated labor or employment law.

Reclaiming My Job

Returning to work was surreal; I was back from the dead, as some of my fellow workers said. The return could not have been better. Rather than quietly walking back on the job as if nothing had happened, my fellow organizers and I decided that we’d use the moment to claim victory and set the tone with management about what to expect from now on. Three fellow organizers accompanied me as I walked back onto the floor. When I re-entered the break room I was greeted with “I Missed Emmett” magnets that covered the lockers and a few that held up copies of the NLRB notification. When I arrived, one worker was there reading the posting and shaking his head in disbelief. I added to my work cap the pins of support my co-workers were wearing in my absence to show their solidarity. My fellow organizers followed me as I set foot back on the shop floor where high-fives, hugs and handshakes awaited me from all my co-workers.

The greeting which I’ll never forget came from the morning dishwasher, an old-timer in the company and a man 25 years older than me. As co-workers separated by our different native languages and different departments, our interactions at work were often limited to a short exchange when he’d pour his daily coffee. The day I was fired, with tears welling up in my eyes and a shocked but all knowing look in his, we said goodbye and shook hands. The day I returned to work I approached him to shake his hand once again, he hurriedly threw down his mop and gave me a hug. Later, he sought me out to express how happy he was to have me back at work.

We then marched on the boss and an organizer presented a letter demanding that I have a witness in my pre-work meeting with management and HR. The HR manager agreed to our insistence that I be allowed a witness of my choice but stated that one could not be expected at future meetings. I felt so much more confident in this meeting because I had a fellow worker there who had my back and was taking notes the whole time.

Throughout my shift that first day back and for the next few days, co-workers stopped and congratulated me and told me how happy they were to see me back. My response to all of my co-workers was “Thank you for your support. I wouldn’t have my job back without it. Todos juntas!” Even some managers congratulated me on putting up a good fight! Regular customers who knew what happened likewise greeted me with hugs and handshakes. For those customers who didn’t know why I was gone, I laid it out that I was fired illegally and that the company was forced to give me my job back because of the support of my co-workers.

Where Do We Go From Here

Arriving to work these days, I’m constantly reminded of the struggle that took place to win my job back. I can’t miss seeing the “I Missed Emmett” magnets scattered across my co-workers’ lockers in the break room as I lace up my work shoes or sit down for a lunch break. In my locker are my NLRB back-to-work order, a welcome-back card given to me by a co-worker, and a picture drawn by the 5-year-old son of a regular who, accompanied by her two kids, delivered the customer letter to an owner requesting my reinstatement. When I walk back onto the shop floor, I’m greeted by the dozens of faces of co-workers who did so much to ensure that I returned to work. Much has changed since I was fired. To the credit of my co-workers and fellow organizers, the question of “just cause” disciplinary procedure was raised publicly. Additionally, workers are questioning our compensation and discussing the need for voice within our work.

While much has indeed changed, the power structure largely remains the same. Until my co-workers and I have the power to determine OUR conditions of employment, I believe it’s my responsibility to continue the fight. As things are now, the lessons and meaning of our victory to win my job back are largely internalized by the workers. We need to make our working conditions subject to the lessons of our victory and institutionalize the conditions we demand. Since I returned to work four months ago, three of my co-workers have quit and a new crew of workers is being introduced to the workplace without the experience of struggle the rest of us shared. So, we must share our stories, organize more aggressively than we have ever before and be ready to not only respond to management’s endless assaults collectively, but to initiate our own plan to win. Let’s keep fighting; there’s no alternative anymore.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2013)