2005

Industrial Worker (April 2005)

Articles from the April 2005 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Philly retail workers build solidarity union - Jon Bekken

An article by Jon Bekken about the South Street Workers Union, an effort to organize food & retail workers in Philadelphia. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2005).

The IWW-affiliated South Street Workers Union is organizing retail and food service workers along Philadelphia's South Street corridor, implementing a model of solidarity unionism focused on helping workers create their own shop floor and district-wide organizations to confront low wages, poor working conditions, and the lack of workplace rights.

Since the union began organizing in August 2003, the South Street Workers Union has organized health, tax and workers' rights clinics; social events; a district-wide grievance committee that has helped workers claim unpaid wages and develop strategies to improve working conditions; and organized a campaign against proposed mass transit fare increases and service cutbacks.
Seventy union members and supporters marched down South Street February 27, demanding support for mass transportation funding -- culminating a two-week campaign in which they approached business owners along the strip asking them to sign a letter to the legislature demanding adequate transit funding.

The SEPTA system faced a $49 million budget shortfall, which it planned to meet by raising cash fares from $2 to $2.50 (on the way to $3), and slashing night and weekend service.

The cuts and fare hikes were averted the next day when the governor diverted highway funds to cover operating expenses through June.

Marchers stopped at five of the seven South Street businesses that had refused to sign the letter, gaining two more signatures to bring the total to 99. The march ended with a short rally where the letters were delivered to State Rep. Babette Josephs, who told the crowd that as the only member of the legislature who didnÕt own a car, she recognized the importance of mass transit.

"If we saw this kind of protest in every shopping district," she added, "the legislature would find a way to solve the transit crisis."

South Street workers depend on mass transit, delegate Andrew Rothman noted, adding that proposed fare increases "would be devastating to people who are living at or below the poverty line." Marchers echoed that sentiment, chanting "Raise our wages, not the fares."

The march was covered by three television stations and in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The South Street Workers Union's next event is a tax clinic, where accountants will be on hand to help workers prepare tax returns and claim the earned income credit many are entitled to because of their low earnings.

Most South Street workers earn little more than minimum wage (and some not even that). Although the corridor -- which includes a mix of chain stores and locally owned businesses ranging from small boutiques to large, multi-level stores -- is one of Philadelphia's busiest shopping district, its wages are sometimes lower than those paid in other parts of the city.

One owner monitors workers from her home with surveillance cameras. Another operates a 2,000-square-foot store with just one worker per shift. What these businesses have in common is low wages, benefits that run the gamut from inadequate to non-existent, and high turnover as workers jump from one crappy job to another.

The union was formed to help change these conditions, and currently has members at eight stores along the corridor. It has helped workers at a national franchise outlet end management's practice of demanding unpaid clean-up time, and defended workers threatened with losing their jobs. Several members also traveled to Brooklyn to build relations with workers involved in a similar campaign among immigrant workers there.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2005)

Originally posted: May 11, 2005 at iww.org

Industrial Worker (September 2005)

Articles from the September 2005 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

AFL-CIO splits: business unionism in crisis - Jon Bekken

An article by Jon Bekken about the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO that eventually became the Change to Win (CtW) Federation. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2005).

The AFL-CIO suffered a devastating split as it celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding July 25-28, with three unions representing nearly a third of its members quitting, and two others refusing to participate in its biennial convention. The Teamsters and Service Employees unions withdrew on the eve of the convention; the United Food and Commercial Workers quit the Federation as delegates were leaving Chicago.

The Change to Win Coalition kicked things off with a high-energy press conference packed with union staffers. The presidents of all six CWC unions - SEIU, Unite-HERE, Teamsters, UFCW, Laborers and United Farm Workers - spoke to an enthusiastic crowd, but the surface unity quickly dissolved when things got down to specifics. Four Coalition unions boycotted the AFL convention, two said they would participate. The officers were unwilling to say whether their unions would formally quit the AFL-CIO; the decisions trickled in over the next few days.

While CWC representatives said the split was over the need to "restructure" the Federation to focus resources on organizing, the closest thing to a specific illustration of differences on offer was when SEIU President Andy Stern contrasted the wording of the AFL leadership's and CWC's resolutions: where the AFL-CIO resolutions employed the word "should," the Coalition used the word "shall." Such momentous differences can not help but inspire a movement.

AFL-CIO officials, meanwhile, scrambled to hold things together in back rooms as a succession of politicians delivered stump speeches from the podium, chasing after what remains of a very lucrative gravy train.

There was no debate over the future of the labor movement, or over anything else of import. AFL officials agreed at the last minute to a resolution calling for the "rapid" withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq rather than face a floor fight. Rather than allow a contested election for officers, they cut a deal with veteran labor writer Harry Kelber in which he withdrew his candidacy in exchange for three minutes at the podium. (An attempt to rule him ineligible fizzled when Kelber produced records documenting his union membership.) Reports on the AFL's substantial stock portfolio took up time badly needed to develop a vision of unionism that recognizes the reality of the current class war. Politicians mouthed empty platitudes about unity while AFL-affiliated airline unions prepared to scab on the independent union representing Northwest mechanics.

Faced with the loss of $30 million a year because of the disaffiliation of the Service Employees, Teamsters and Food and Commercial Workers, delegates approved a 4 cent increase in the monthly per capita tax each international union pays the AFL-CIO. The convention also made permanent a special 8 cent per capita assessment earmarked for the AFL's political program. Much of this money will be used for the 2006 congressional and 2008 presidential elections.

Resolutions that had been proposed in an effort to placate CWC unions were also adopted, including establishing a more powerful Executive Committee dominated by the largest affiliates and creating Industry Coordinating Committees to oversee organizing targeting and set contract standards among unions in industry clusters.

Although the Coalition unions put forward a 10-point program they claimed would position the labor movement to rebuild its industrial power, in the end the debate collapsed into an argument over how much money unions should pay to support Federation activities. The larger unions that formed the Change to Win Coalition said the AFL-CIO should rebate half of their dues money to fund strategic campaigns to organize new members (not that the UFCW or Teamsters do much of that). AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the federation should increase spending on organizing, and also spend even more on politicking. But neither advocated any fundamental change in how the AFL does business, even if they did hold very different views of who should run the operation.

Former United Auto Workers regional director Jerry Tucker noted "how shallow, myopic and unplugged from today's worker reality the so-called debate has remained... This has been a ping-pong match between guardians of a failed legacy - a faction fight to see who can best restore business unionism and labor's junior partnership with capital."

Leftists who've entertained visions of Change to Win as a scrappy ground-level organizing outfit should have been discomfited by Hoffa's talk of "staffing up" and professionalization of organizing (even if that might be a welcome contrast to the patronage hacks who have been in charge of the Teamsters' pitiful organizing attempts), but now that Change to Win has hired 55 public relations specialists and appointed as its executive director Greg Tarpinian, who's made a career of "consulting" for some of the Teamsters' most calcified old guard, it's hard to talk about challenging the status quo with a straight face.
Former AFL-CIO staffer Bill Fletcher notes that the entire debate misses the point: "Our unions suffer from a profound conservatism, a failure to recognize the kinds of changes that are going on... We have to be prepared to talk about something we've been afraid to say out loud - that capitalism is harmful to the health of workers. Something is fundamentally wrong with the priorities of this society, and we have to be courageous enough to say so."

Meanwhile, the business unions continue their collapse. Less than 8 percent of private sector workers are now unionized, and it seems unlikely that the UFCW's brand of minimum-wage unionism is going to inspire many workers to risk their jobs by unionizing. Neither side in this heated debate called for more internal democracy (something notoriously absent from the unions that dominate the Coalition), or offered any vision of how a just society should be organized. There was only the faintest hint of recognition of the need for international solidarity to confront an increasingly global economy.

There was a lot of talk about more independence from the Democrats on all sides, but the only concrete difference between the Coalition "reformers" and the AFL-CIO is that the "reformers" are giving more of their money to Republicans. Direct action and solidarity were not on the agenda, and for all the talk of the need to reform labor laws neither side appears to have given any thought to how to build a union movement that helps workers to organize on the job and defend their interests without the official recognition that is increasingly hard to get.

In short, it's business as usual at an AFL-CIO now much smaller than it was a month ago, while the Coalition unions are moving to launch a competing federation that, if anything, looks to be more boss-friendly than the one they have left.

The merger of the Congress of Industrial Organizations into the American Federation of Labor fifty years ago marked the end of an experiment in which business unions tried to adapt the tools forged by the IWW. In the process, they built unions in many sectors that were generally undemocratic but did deliver better wages and benefits in exchange for channeling workers' rebellion into safer (for the bosses) channels. With the merger, those unions that refused to surrender the vestiges of a broader social vision were left in the cold, and most soon collapsed or were absorbed into the business unions.
So workers have little reason to mourn today's split. But neither is there cause for celebration. Neither side in this bureaucratic struggle has anything to say to workers struggling to revive the labor movement.
Labor councils' rebellion

The Afl-CIO has backed down on orders to state and local labor councils to expel locals of the seceding unions. Sweeney acted in response to a growing rebellion from councils that would have been crippled by the expulsion order. Some suggested they might become independent rather than expel unions that, in many places, form the backbone of local labor councils.

Instead, the AFL is creating "solidarity charters" under which independent unions will be allowed to join labor councils if they pay a 10 percent "solidarity" surcharge. However, their members could not be elected to top office. It is unclear whether this compromise will be sufficient to quell the rebellion.

New labor federation forming

Three unions that withdrew from the AFL-CIO have announced plans to launch a new labor federation Sept. 27 in Cincinnati. The SEIU, Teamsters, and United Food and Commercial Workers are expected to participate. The Carpenters, which withdrew from the AFL-CIO in 2001, may also attend.
Three other Change to Win Coalition unions - the Farm Workers, Laborers, and Unite Here - remain in the AFL-CIO. Unite Here has been a leading Coalition member but is unlikely to quit the Federation, if only because its Amalgamated Bank relies heavily on union deposits and could be bankrupted if AFL unions withdrew their funds. The Communications Workers pulled $60 million earlier this year as a warning shot.

Some independent unions have expressed interest in the new grouping, but appear to be waiting to see how it develops.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2005)

Originally posted: October 9, 2005 at iww.org

Industrial Worker (October 2005)

Articles from the October 2005 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Katrina: social tragedy benefits exploiters, devastates workers

An article by Jon Bekken about the management of Hurricane Katrina relief. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2005).

Hundreds of thousands of workers face untold misery after they were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and the flooding that wrecked much of New Orleans in its aftermath. It may be months before many of those displaced from coastal Louisiana and Mississippi are allowed to return to what remains of their homes. However, things are looking much more promising for business. Owners of office space throughout the Gulf Coast region are doing record business; hotels are charging top dollar for shabby units; oil companies are enjoying windfall profits as the wonders of capitalism transform their damaged (and fully insured) refineries and drilling platforms into a price bonanza for energy suppliers.

Stock prices for major contractors Halliburton and Baker Hughes - which also have been making out like bandits from the carnage of the Iraq war - skyrocketed as they joined in the scramble to profit off this tragedy. A Sept. 6 story in the New York Times celebrated the business opportunities, even as it cautioned that some "are wary about seeming too gleeful in light of New Orleans' misery."

"I always hate to talk about positives in a situation like this," Tetra Technologies CEO Geoffrey Hertel told the Times, "but this is certainly a growth business for the next 6 to 12 months." Tetra repairs oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Let no one believe this was a natural disaster. The hurricane itself may have been a force of nature, although most scientists who study the earth's changing climate believe that the frequency and intensity of hurricanes has increased sharply as a result of global warming - that is, as a result of the capitalists' reckless plundering and destruction of our planet. (Similarly, the flooding was worsened because the government has for years ignored environmentalists' warnings that the wetlands and harbor islands needed to buffer New Orleans from storms were being destroyed.)

But there was ample opportunity to evacuate before the hurricane struck, and even more time before the flooding that caused the bulk of the carnage. Hundreds of thousands loaded their possessions in their cars, grabbed some cash, and headed out of town to wait the storm out. A few refused to leave their homes. But tens of thousands had no choice. They did not have cars in which to make the journey, nor funds with which to buy fuel (the price of which was already skyrocketing), nor credit cards with which to book a hotel room in some strange city, far from family and friends. This was a private-sector evacuation, open only to those with the economic means to participate. The poor were left to fend for themselves, as best they could.

To be sure, the city told them to take shelter in the Convention Center and the SuperDome, but once there they were abandoned to their plight, without food or water or medical attention. Quite simply, to those who make the decisions in this society their lives were of no importance and they were left to die.

But they refused.

People broke into stores and took what they needed to survive. (Some, it seems, may also have taken some of the luxuries which had long been denied them.) They shared what they found, and treated each other's injuries as best they could.

In the hurricane's aftermath, the media spread lurid reports of looters shooting down rescue helicopters and raping children in relief shelters. Most of these reports turn out to have been fabrications. The NPR radio show "This American Life" broadcast interviews with hurricane survivors prevented from escaping the disaster zone by armed police looking to keep African-American survivors out of their white suburbs. "Thank God for the looters," one conventioneer said, noting that they not only provided desperately needed food and water but also ferried children and sick people to evacuation centers.

Meanwhile, as people were dying in New Orleans of dehydration and disease, state officials pulled police and National Guard from rescue efforts; instead, they were given "shoot to kill" orders and dispatched to protect property.

We saw two contrasting visions of society in this disaster. Thousands rushed to aid the victims, not asking if there was a buck to be made but rather doing what they could to respond to the urgent human need. People opened their homes to refugees, traveled into danger zones, and emptied their pockets. Meanwhile, gas stations and hotels raised prices to take advantage of the desperate refugees, while politicians left those unable to escape New Orleans to die.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency turned back truckloads of bottled water even as thousands of survivors had gone for days without food or water. FEMA officials ignored reports of thousands of people jammed into the New Orleans Convention Center and on overpasses throughout the city, told the Red Cross to stay out of the city, and left people to die until media coverage forced them to take action.

The one million people from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast suddenly tossed out of their jobs by Hurricane Katrina are now fanning out across the South and the rest of the country looking for work. In San Francisco, a few have been hired to scab on striking health care workers. Others can hope for work rebuilding the highways and buildings leveled by the storm and flooding. But most were low-wage workers in the casino and tourism industries, filling jobs that will not exist until the region is rebuilt. Before the hurricane hit, nearly a fourth of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line.

Concerned that the bosses might have to pay too much for that reconstruction work, President Bush has waived a federal law requiring construction contractors receiving federal funds to pay prevailing wages to their workers. Employers have long sought to repeal Davis-Bacon Act requirements, claiming taxpayers could benefit by sending construction work to the lowest bidder and paying rock-bottom wages. Eliminating prevailing wage requirements also has the advantage of creating huge cost differentials between unionized and non-union contractors, effectively replacing union workers with workers who lack union protection and so must cut corners and do slip-shod work to meet the bosses' demands for more profits.

As always, there is money to be made (and votes to be hustled) off human suffering. These parasites will be with us so long as we tolerate an economic system based upon greed and exploitation.

But we can see the basis for another system in the actions of those who continue to reach out to aid those in need. As always, they are the vast majority, but it is the parasites who hold the levers of power. In this time of crisis, we must of course extend our solidarity to our fellow workers; but let's also ask why we continue to tolerate an economic system that inflicts such misery on so many.

A directory of grassroots organizations in New Orleans, Biloxi, Houston and other affected areas providing immediate disaster relief to poor people and people of color can be found at http://katrina.mayfirst.org/

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2005)

Originally posted: November 2, 2005 at iww.org

Solidarity is key to win Northwest Airline strike - Jon Bekken

An article by Jon Bekken about the 2005 Northwest Airlines strike. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2005).

Northwest mechanics and cleaning crews remain solidly united as their strike against massive concessions that would cost most workers their jobs enters its second month. Unable to entice strikers to cross the picket lines, Northwest began hiring permanent replacements Sept. 13, and has contracted out nearly all of its cleaning work.

Delta and Northwest airlines filed for bankruptcy Sept. 14, after unions balked at the carriers' demands for another round of deep pay cuts, lay-offs and other concessions. While Northwest has said it will refuse to deal with the mechanics during the bankruptcy proceedings, this stance is illegal.

In the most recent round of contract talks, Northwest said it was willing to keep only 1,080 mechanics' jobs; most mechanics and all aircraft cleaner and custodian positions represented by the union would be outsourced, eliminating 3,181 positions that existed before the strike. Northwest had originally demanded "only" 2,000 lay-offs, so it is clearly feeling emboldened by the way other union workers have been waltzing across the mechanics' picket lines.

Even though it would cost more than three-fourths of its members their jobs, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association negotiating team said it was willing to present Northwest's proposal for a vote, but ultimately withdrew from contract talks when Northwest refused to offer an acceptable severance package for the workers who would lose their jobs and insisted on intolerable working conditions for the survivors of this industrial carnage.

Although dozens of baggage handlers, ground crew and flight attendants have honored AMFA picket lines, massive union scabbing has allowed Northwest Airlines to keep its planes flying with a mix of 1,200 scabs, about 350 managers who are licensed mechanics, and outside maintenance firms - even if at such a heavy cost that the carrier has been pushed into bankruptcy.

The Machinists and pilots unions have directed their members to scab; the independent Professional Flight Attendants Union (which only represents workers at Northwest) officially supports the strike but is not honoring picket lines. The Teamsters have told their members they are on their own as far as the picket lines go, but have had the decency to cancel staff travel plans on the struck carrier.

Since the strike began, the AFL-CIO has issues mealy-mouthed statements of support for the workers, while refusing to support the strike itself. On the eve of the strike the AFL issued a memo warning that, "AMFA may ask CLCs and State Feds for support: food banks, money, turnout at AMFA picket lines and at rallies etc. StateFeds and CLCs should not provide AMFA with such support, unless the national AFL-CIO instructs them to do so." Far from encouraging solidarity, AFL-affiliated unions have been doing all in their power to disrupt local solidarity efforts.

The newly independent Change to Win Coalition unions, which include thousands of airline workers in their ranks, have made no official mention of the strike.

Meanwhile, the CWA-affiliated Association of Flight Attendants is trying to raid the independent union which represents 9,600 Northwest flight attendants, making not-so-veiled threats that other airline unions will scab should they be forced to strike, leaving them to fight alone just like the mechanics. This threat might be more persuasive if AFL-affiliated unions had a better record of honoring each others' picket lines.

Northwest is demanding more than $150 million a year in concessions from the flight attendants, including outsourcing international flights to cheaper overseas crews and hiring nonunion crews to work small aircraft. The changes would eliminate more than half of flight attendant jobs.

Growing solidarity

Despite attempts to isolate the Northwest strikers, solidarity actions are slowly taking root. Thousands of strikers and their supporters rallied across from the Northwest hangar at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International airport Aug. 27, including many uniformed Northwest flight attendants. The flight attendants' union president spoke at the rally, and the union is encouraging members to join solidarity rallies and defending flight attendants who have been fired for refusing to cross AMFA picket lines.

The United Auto Workers have donated $880,000 in strike relief funds. In an implicit rebuke to other unions which have been actively undermining the strike, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said, "Northwest Airlines' behavior toward AMFA is blatant union-busting and an insult to every American worker. The UAW is proud to offer this support to AMFA members."

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been joining AMFA picket lines on the West Coast, and labor councils in Alameda County, San Francisco and Northwest Oregon have passed motions of support. (The IWW has also adopted a resolution, which is published on page 6.)

Hundreds of supporters joined striking mechanics at San Francisco International Airport on Labor Day. Airline mechanics and flight attendants from American Airlines, United Airlines and other carriers not only joined the rally but spoke in solidarity. Most significantly, IAM strikers and local union officials joined the rally. The Machinists' NWA Grievance Committee Chairperson Janice Sisco spoke, saying that all units were threatened by the attack on the mechanics. AMFA District Council 9 President Joe Prisco also spoke, declaring that AMFA would honor all picket lines as a matter of principle no matter what union was involved.

Absent were Bay Area AFL-CIO and Change To Win leaders, even though they had acceded to rank-and-file pressure to pass a resolution supporting the strike.

In Detroit, IBEW, IWW, UAW and other unionists had been planning an August 27 benefit for the strikers at IBEW Local 58's hall, which they have used for several labor solidarity events over the years. When Machinists officials learned of the event, they called the local to demand that it be cancelled. Local 58 officials explained that they had rented the hall to a community organization, so the IBEW international stepped in and ordered them to lock the hall to prevent the event from taking place.

A new venue had to be found and publicized on 30 hours' notice, and it was. A local bar lent its kitchen for the cooking and two Detroit night spots opened their doors Saturday evening, accommodating 500 strike supporters. Outraged IBEW officials demanded that the local turn over the burglar alarm company's records to prove that the hall had not been used for the purpose of supporting workers fighting to defend their jobs.

Many Northwest aircraft may be unsafe. A Federal Aviation Administration inspector who raised serious concerns about maintenance problems in the first days of the strike was reassigned after the airline complained. Minnesota-based FAA inspector Mark Lund wrote that the situation at Northwest "jeopardizes life or property." The FAA downplayed the warning, noting that Lund is active in the union representing inspectors.

Despite the courageous actions of dozens of workers to honor the AMFA picket lines (more than offset by union scabbing that has gone far beyond the normal treachery - in one case a Northwest pilot actually moved equipment on the ground in order to get his scab plane ready for take-off), the picket lines have not shut the carrier down. Northwest is canceling many flights, and on some days more than half of its flights have been delayed by 15 minutes or longer. And in order to fill its flights, Northwest is increasingly relying on code sharing (particularly through its Delta partner) and budget booking systems (which do not identify the carrier until after tickets are purchased) to lure passengers onto its planes under false colors.

Yet while the growing solidarity is heartening evidence that many rank-and-file workers are repulsed by the union scabbery and jurisdictional squabbling that has left the mechanics to fight on their own, if the strike is to be won the airline will have to be shut down. Ideally this would be done by other Northwest workers honoring the picket lines. If not, mass picketing will be necessary. If AMFA is defeated in this fight, it will touch off a renewed wave of concessions demands throughout all industry. In this case, as is so often the case, an injury to one really is an injury to all.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2005)

Originally posted: November 2, 2005 by iww.org

Industrial Worker (November 2005)

Articles from the November 2005 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

In November we remember - Jon Bekken

An article by Jon Bekken about the numerous martyrs of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) over the years. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2005).

Every November we remember the rebel workers murdered by the employing class; a long list which grows longer every year. Fred Thompson used to speak of an IWW soapboxer whose rap went something like this: 'Workers are being fired for joining the IWW. Workers are being killed... Join the IWW.' It demonstrated, Fred used to say, a fine sense of solidarity but was not necessarily the best way to sign up new members.

The IWW has contributed more than its fair share of labor's martyr, because we have always been in the forefront of the struggle for workers' rights. By some accident of the calendar, many of our fellow workers have fallen in November, from the Haymarket Martyrs murdered Nov. 11, 1887, to the Nov. 4, 1936, death of FW Dalton Gentry, shot on an IWW picket line in Pierce, Idaho.

Some, like Joe Hill (killed Nov. 19, 1915) are famous; others, like R.J. Horton, largely forgotten. Fellow Worker Horton was shot down by a Salt Lake City cop Oct. 30, 1915, while giving a speech protesting the impending execution of Joe Hill.

Some died in prison, like Samuel Chin (March 1910) in Spokane, or Thomas Martinez (March 3, 1921) in Guadalajara, Mexico. Some were murdered by vigilantes, including Joe Marko (April 8, 1911) in the San Diego free speech fight and Wesley Everest (Nov. 11, 1919) in Centralia. Others were killed by police, such as Steve Hovath (August 2, 1908) in the McKees Rocks strike or Martynas Petkus (Feb. 21, 1917) in Philadelphia.

It is a long list, even if too many are unknown, including the Stettin, Germany, dockworkers murdered by the Nazi regime, or the fellow workers who fell to military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Peru. A researcher is uncovering the names of Wobblies who died in Spain, fighting the fascists in the 1930s, but who will recover the names of the Wobblies murdered as they rode the rails, organizing the harvest stiffs?

In 1973, Frank Terrugi was killed by the Chilean junta; the next year the Philippines army killed FW Frank Gould. We can not forgot those who while grievously injured were not killed, through no fault of the bosses, such as Judi Bari who survived a 1990 assassination attempt but spent the rest of her life in pain, or the 15 Tulsa oil workers who survived a lynching party Nov. 7-8, 1917.

The November 1996 Industrial Worker printed a long list of IWWs killed on picket lines. The list includes Roy Martin, Decatur Hall, Ed Brown and J. Tooley murdered by gun thugs in May 1912 in Grabow, Louisiana; Anna LaPizza and Joe Ramey killed the same month during the Lawrence strike; John Smolsky (Lawrence), FW Donovan (Missoula) and Nels Nelson (Marysville CA), strikers killed Oct. 19, 1912; Felix Baran, Hugo Gerlot, Gus Johnson, John Looney and Abraham Rabinowitz killed Feb. 2, 1915, in the Everett Massacre (several more disappeared overboard that day); James Brew, murdered July 12, 1917, during the Bisbee Deportation; John Eastenes, Nick Stanudakis, Mike Vidovitch, J.R. Davies, E.R. Jacques and G. Kosvich, all killed Nov. 21, 1927, in the Columbine Massacre...

However long we make the list, it falls short by the thousands. But the victims we honor for asserting themselves are but a handful compared to the millions victimized by the meekness of the working class: miners killed in unsafe mines, seamen lost in ships they knew were overloaded, construction workers killed because safe practices cost too much, textile workers who succumbed to brown lung, the millions who have died in the bosses' wars, and the millions more who have died of hunger in a world of potential abundance. Consider these numbers next time someone tells you it doesn't pay to stick your neck out.

Every right we possess today we possess because our fellow workers fought and died for it. We owe it to them not simply to defend the rights and conditions they won, not just to preserve their memory, but to carry the struggle they began forward - to bring an end to this brutal system built on murder and exploitation.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2005)

Originally posted: November 2, 2005 at iww.org

The 1st of January boot factory: a case study in cooperation - Chris Arsenault

An article by Chris Arsenault about cooperatives in Chiapas, Mexico. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2005).

It's been more than eleven years since the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico said 'ya basta' or 'enough' to neo-liberalism and initiated a struggle for self-determination.

Today, the Zapatistas are creating a variety of participatory economic institutions to meet community needs: women's artisan co-ops, communal corn farming organizations, fair-trade coffee cooperatives and a non-sweatshop boot cooperative.

On a sunny day last year, myself and a delegation of foreign solidarity activists tramped the muddy hills around Oventic Caracole, in the Los Altos region, to visit the 1st of January boot co-op. Rafael Hedez, a leading activist with the co-op, and several other compañeros welcomed us with Cokes and bowls of snow-tire tough beef soup stewed on an open fire.

Inside the workshop, basically a barn with corrugated iron roof, one of the higher-end buildings in a region of thatched farm cuts, a dozen or so men busily cut leather, stick patterns and heat branding irons, large blue flames erupt as glue is melted to stick on the soles.

After showing us around, Hedez begins speaking proudly about ownership structure at the workshop, "We have no owner. Here we are all equals," he said.

"When there is something necessary, or when problems arise, all jobs have problems, then we have a meeting or a discussion in general. If we want to make something without consulting the rest, we can't do that. We must present that job on behalf of everyone," said Hedez.

The co-op started Jan. 1, 1998, when two activists traveled from Chiapas to Mexico City spending six months learning the trade. The independent workshop that trained Hedez and others has since shut down, due to a huge influx of low-cost footwear from China.

Its first priority is to provide high-quality, low-cost footwear for the surrounding communities. "We sell to the indigenous for 150-220 pesos (approx. US$25), just enough to recuperate the cost of the materials. Here in San Andres there are shoes for 100 pesos, but they will only last for a season," said another co-op member.

With significant national and international interest in Zapatismo, the cooperative decided they could use sales to non-indigenous to help finance the development of the workshop. "We sell high boots to foreigners for 350 pesos and medium for 300. This is the price for those who are in solidarity with us, who are also Zapatistas," said Hedez.

Before ending his presentation, Hedez stressed the praxis of the organization, "This is the factory for everyone. We are all the owners. We are the coordinators who coordinate the workshop."

"We try to organize ourselves along the same principals as the 1st of January Co-op," said Amanda Smith, a member of the Black Star Boot Cooperative, a Canadian organization helping to find markets for the boots and solidarity grants to improve the factory.

"Organizing cooperatively is certainly trying," said Smith, an anthropology student from Halifax. "None of us have experience working with boots. It's a little disorganized, frustrating and often inefficient, but the project came directly from the Zapatistas, and at this point, it seems like the most useful thing we can be doing," she said.

"It's less about selling boots than it is about the example we are trying to set; economic interaction based on international solidarity and workers producing quality goods without bosses," she said.

Since the uproar against sweatshop abuses in the early '90s, major textile corporations have spent millions on public relations to showcase "good corporate citizenry" - as if such a concept were possible.

Some positive examples of non-sweat apparel production have sprung up in the last couple years: Sweat X was paying "living" wages to U.S. workers (until it shut down) and American Apparel, which recently opened a store in Toronto, pays workers in Los Angeles decent wages to produce unbranded high quality t-shirts and other clothing.

Commendable as these examples are, their praxis is fundamentally flawed. They seek a return to the post-war settlement, naively hoping decent-paying 9-5 factory jobs can thrive again in the era of neo-liberalism. And although workers have more say over their lives at the American Apparel factory than in a Nike or Adidas outsourcing operation, the non-sweat factories still operate on a centrally planned hierarchy.

In a sense, the Zapatistas, basically an agrarian movement, have leap-frogged the entire wage system with their forays into 'industry.' Co-op members receive no salary for their labor; all profits are invested back into entire community, mostly for public services, specifically health promotion.

"We have a difficult situation," admits Hedez, who is married with several children. "We sustain ourselves through what little we can grow in our milpas (corn fields). We have two days a week for working in the fields. We also buy various things, but very little."

On the outset, working roughly a 40-hour week as a volunteer seems over-zealous, if not downright exploitative. But factory activists have realized they can't individually pull themselves out of poverty. Key pillars of Zapatismo like health, education, work and dignity demand collective action, cooperation and mutual aid.

While boot co-op activists work in their little factory, other community members cut grass and do repairs on public spaces, provide health care, grow shared food, administer justice and take on other tasks in the public interest. Like most political movements, some Zapatistas end up doing more work than others but all people involved in the movement are expected to contribute as best they can.

The 1st of January Boot Workshop is not a perfect model of economic democracy. The component parts for the boots - soles, laces etc. - are bought from coyotes (middlemen) in San Cristobal de las Casas and are presumably imported from China.

And, in the Chiapas highlands, the 'glory' of worker-self-management exists beside deplorable poverty the Mexican government characterizes as 'acute marginalization'; many of the workshop activists can't afford shoes for their own children.

Poverty is ubiquitous in Chiapas (and most of the world), stifling possibilities for participatory economics; you can't make something from nothing. The workshop wants to expand production but it's unlikely they'll get a bank loan for new capital; a 1994 memo from the Chase Manhattan Bank urging the Mexican army to "eliminate the Zapatistas" elucidates how global capital evaluates those who seek alternatives.

Still, the workshop's production is based on a key principle of Zapatismo, 'Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves.'

"Those of us with the privilege of a Canadian passport, who are 'also Zapatistas' by Rafeal's definition, have a responsibility to help build participatory structures in re-developing areas," said Black Star organizer Dennis Hale. "Not just for because we're nice guilty liberals, but because we need them more than they need us."

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2005)

Originally posted: November 2, 2005 at iww.org

Industrial Worker (December 2005)

Articles from the December 2005 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Informal work groups and resistance on the sunrise shift

An account of an informal work group at UPS taking on a grievance with management.

This is a story about a situation that happened at my workplace. Ideally, this will add to a conception of what Direct Unionism is, how it exists in everyday situations, and where we can go with it as an organization. This event happened around a year ago. While some of its impacts were immediate, it took me some time to develop an analysis, and to see clearly how this tied in with the development of class-consciousness. At this point I feel that I can look back, analyze the situation and draw out some lessons.

I worked on the sunrise shift at a parcel moving company represented by the Teamsters. At this company, and in this industry in general, every package is timed out to the last minute. Every day lost in not delivering a package costs this company money. The precision of the timing and the workers' role in maintaining the schedule furthers the opportunity for strategic opposition. This was especially true on my shift where the large majority of the packages being unloaded were on the last leg of their journey. These packages are going directly from us to the trucks that deliver things to your home.

Thus workers in the unload department were in a strategic position in effecting production. This was not immediately apparent to everyone working that section, but the realization eventually took hold. Over the course of roughly four months the unload crew, which consisted of about ten people, developed some pretty tight bonds. Everyone respected and trusted one another.

Day in and day out, the boss' goal is to get workers out after three and a half hours. The Teamsters negotiated into the contract that the company has to guarantee three and a half hours of work. At $8.50 or $9.50 an hour, this amount of time is not enough to live on. Moreover, the amount of work they expect people to get done in three and a half hours is easily four or five hours worth of work. In order to crank it out there are numerous methods. Making work into some kind of sport is one way, or just riding the hell out of people. I have even heard supervisors offering twenty bucks to certain stooges in order to make them work even faster.

In response to this constant speed-up at these low wages, our crew began to drag out the day and slow down as much as we could. All of us understood that being there for four or four and a half hours was important, and just as important was not letting the boss set the pace at which our bodies worked.

For obvious reasons, management did not like this so they began a series of restructuring efforts. They brought in different supervisors, trying to get the most hard-nosed bastard down there, or the friendliest your-older-brother-on-the-line type. None of this worked. Next management began to bring in new hires. It was around the time of the year when new hires are usually brought in, so it may not have been a method to destabilize us as a group. Whether deliberate or not, bringing on an extra set of hands could have undermined our informal production rate.

This particular cat that was brought in, young, straight out of high school, looked every bit to management like someone who would not fit in with our group. The most important aspect was that cat still lived with his folks, and was only working there for the education assistance UPS offers (the establishment of this is a side story of using student labor to pre-empt and undermine workers' power but I won't get into that here). The rest of us, although young, lived on our own and were supporting ourselves. So it seemed at first like he would not be down with the dynamics that existed. Quickly this proved not to be the case. Rather than hang out with supervisor training you at break during the first few weeks, which is customary as this is the only person you know and basically you're cornered into it, he would come chill with us in the break room. He was loud, talked good shit, and openly defied the boss.

It is hard to say what bothered the bosses more - Willy hanging out with us, or his refusal to go the pace they demanded. This pace varies between 23 and 30 boxes a minute, pretty staggering in general. He kept his pace right around ours, which varied from person to person but was much lower than the boss's numbers. It got to a point where management began threatening to fire him. He came to us. Our advice, which was probably a mistake but stuck within the confines of the union contract, was pick it up until you hit the end of your probation period. It takes a new hire 70 working days until he is a "member" of the union, and under its protection from discipline. This is 70 days of speed-up, manipulation and harassment, during which time the union can only look the other way. As a shop steward once explained to me, "If he's under 90 days I can't touch the situation.

He took our advice, but it proved to not be enough. Even though he was exceeding their production numbers at a pace unbelievable to the rest of us, they were still on his ass.

It got to a point where management decided to restart his training at the beginning. Even though it had been well over a month, it was obvious that this was meant to break him away from our group. This led us to respond with some kind of collective action.

This group had been the driving force throughout the escalating conflict but never had we decided to define ourselves as a group, the line had never come down.

Everyone was at the boiling point in the break room that day. The discussion quickly moved beyond statements like "how could they do that?" It quickly became how were we going to respond and help this cat out.

Driven both by our feelings for Willy and by the realization that this attack on him was an attack on us as well, we resolved to take action. It was known from previous experience that the shop stewards would not help as they were confined by the contract. We resolved in the break room to confront out supervisor after break during the PCM (a communication session usually reserved for safety things, or general company cheerleading). Our demands were pretty simple: We wanted an end to the harassment of Willy, and specifically we wanted this supervisor named Chris who had been training Willy kicked off the belt. It was never openly discussed how we would ensure that these demands were met although the term "strike" was mentioned. No one seemed ready to go that far until after we presented our demands.

So we sat down on a belt that still wasn't moving as we did every day, everyone nervously glancing at one another to figure out who would speak up first. No one had been designated to speak. As the supervisor, Drew, began to talk his bullshit he was quickly silenced, I don't remember by whom, with the announcement that we were going to talk and he was going to listen. This was the first time we had defined ourselves as a group, an act within itself with certain implications for management. A shift in floor power definitely occurred and people felt it immediately.

Drew's jaw dropped to the floor as we poured forth out demands. Each person who wanted to speak did so. Our demands were presented. His reiteration, spoke in a shaky voice was that it wasn't our business to say what supervisors did and that we should get back to work. Someone threatened some kind of strike action. Ears perked up, and Drew really went to shit. Demanding that we all go back to work that instant. None of us jumped up, but rather looked around for some kind of understanding where the others were. We went back to work a few seconds later.

For the next little bit people felt great and no one was thinking about the repercussions. Until we saw a swarm of supervisors coming around the trailer. People began to get fingered out by Drew and one by one called out of trailers. A shop steward was down on the floor along with upper management. The main supervisor stood with his arms crossed while the other one did the berating. The supervisor, whose usual demeanor was all about being buddies, threatened to immediately fire the whole belt if he had to if ever anyone said anything about a strike again. During my berating session, as I tried to clear up the situation by reiterating our demands (which only seemed to make them more pissed) I continuously looked at the shop steward for some support. Nothing coming. Afterwards he pulled me aside, shook my hand, and tacitly gave approval to what we had done.

That's what a union is he said, us workers sticking together.

Well, the next few weeks were great. Chris got transferred off the belt and people began to leave Willy alone. We all felt great about coming to a place most of us had hated only six months earlier. The bosses did not try any retaliation - not even a write-up, they seemed to not want to bring it up. Which of course did not stop us from bringing it up.

This story does not end however on a happy note. I think having seen our group as a force the bosses began to move against it, with increased vigor. Most of the tactics we didn't really see coming. Isolation was a big one. Individuals were sent to different parts of the building or began getting some overt special treatment. The union and the contract were used as a way to isolate one person from the rest of us, based on seniority and disciplinary matters. One cat in particular, due to threats from management and a refusal from the union to have his back anymore, went from being outspoken to silent due to a real fear of losing his job.

Personal problems between workers were also used with management openly trying to incite waives of shit talking between people. It went from a situation of friends who had each other's backs, to acquaintances that didn't trust one and another. Management set this up with the goal of breaking us apart. However, we could have countered each tactic used by management with some foresight and some training. But due to inexperience this did not happen. Lastly, we were isolated from a movement or from other shops with similar situations. We were away from other people who were struggling in a similar way against their bosses and the union. Being connected to such a group could have given us the foresight and resources to counter management's attack.

This incident and the months leading up to and preceding it had a major impact on my thinking. Certainly, although not at the time, it taught me a lot about autonomous worker organizing. Workers on their job site form bonds and create an informal work group, that naturally go against the isolation that work aims to impose. Groups form naturally among diverse people who may not have ever conceived of laughing and bullshitting with other workers. These groups then quite easily become the grounds for struggle against the bosses. This is based on the ability of workers to simply come together and air their beefs, realize the commonality, and trust one and another enough to engage in struggle. This was evident in my experience. I do not mean to make it seem like we were all best friends.

Some people got along better than others, occasionally people might have a falling out, but at the end of the day it was clear there was a group and it was composed of us workers. Stan Wier and Martin Glaberman, two working-class writers and revolutionaries of the late twentieth century, wrote about similar topics. It is to them and fellow workers around me, as well as my experience that I owe my current understanding of informal work groups. This experience also shaped my idea of formation of class-consciousness.

By this term I mean workers identifying themselves as such, and recognizing that they have different interests with the bosses. How is this shaped? What I realized it that class-consciousness is shaped by two threads in my story. First and initially being involved in labor and recognizing that this labor is being also taken up and affected by those around you form it. The basis of informal work groups is the initial basis of class-consciousness.

A second component, and in some ways is created by the first, but goes beyond it is struggle. This is the recognition that not only are you part of a group, but a group that relies on each other. Class-consciousness manifests itself on the shop floor, sometimes in subtle ways, a quick fuck you to the boss for example. Other times it is the willingness to take on the problem of the cat next to you as if it were your own, and taking action based on this. That it is important to stand up for the cat next to you, not just out of your personal relationship (what if you think the guy is an ass) but because in the process you are standing up for yourself. Moreover, when workers define themselves as a group and confront the boss in any manner, it furthers their understanding of what that group is and what power it has. Collective action reinforces that group understanding and forms class-consciousness. While this has been my experience, the writings of Martin Glaberman have definitely helped this understanding along.

It is important to realize that the potential for and the actual occurrence of these actions are widespread. It covers every shift everyday in every shop. How can we see these actions and offer assistance when it is needed? A good place to start if by simply being there. The models of Direct Unionism I see discussed are the way to begin moving towards this.

We could have organizers in these groupings, observing and mapping what is going on, in contact with others in the same shop or industry, this would form the basic shop committee. This grouping would be part of a larger industrial organizing committee. The Industrial Organizing Committee could connect what would otherwise be isolated struggles. Out of the IOC made up of members of the shop committees would be a grievance committee, whose aim would be collecting grievances, doing research and strategizing how to deal with them. The ability would then exist to move with actions and offer assistance, sometimes maybe even to coordinate. I see this model being applicable in a situation where no union is present (as is the majority of situations in the US) or even as in my situation where a union is present.

At the present it seems like these models only exist in people's head or floating around in conversations. But as I hope my story illustrates the core of these models, the shop committees, to some extent already exist in informal work groups. Thus this organizing model develops not out of some purely theoretical framework, but out of how work and workers are organized by capital. And more importantly how workers resist capital where it means the most, on the job.

From the Stumptown Wobbly, reprinted in the Industrial Worker, December 2005

The core of these models, the shop committees, to some extent already exist in informal work groups. Thus this organizing model develops not out of some purely theoretical framework, but out of how work and workers are organized by capital.
Stumptown Wobbly

Teamsters Raid On IWW Drive Fails

An article about an attempted Teamster raid on an IWW campaign in New York. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2005).

On Nov. 1, Local 810 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters lost an NLRB election for the roughly 300-worker transportation department of New York City internet grocer FreshDirect, LLC. The local had lost an election in 2004 for the same unit. Despite having won the support of over 100 workers who could have been organized into a powerful union presence, Local 810 abandoned the field after that election.

FreshDirect, of course, soon broke the promises it had made during the campaign. Transportation workers grew increasingly dissatisfied, and, in June of this year some of them contacted the IWW's New York City General Membership Branch. New York Wobblies mapped out an ambitious industrial campaign to line up the entire FreshDirect workforce - about 1,200 workers - along with workers in other nearby wholesale and retail foodstuffs establishments. With help from other members of New York's rank-and-file May Day Coalition, the Branch began gathering contacts and agitating for the union.

No sooner had the IWW hit the streets than Local 810 reappeared, having been tipped off by a loyal FreshDirect driver, and began circulating authorization cards. Soon they filed for an election with the local NLRB office, alerting management to the existence of their organizing drive and prompting a tepid anti-union propaganda campaign by the company. IWW organizers continued their campaign regardless, telling transportation workers that they would support whatever decision the workers made. Now that the cat was out of the bag, however, they openly confronted management, agitating publicly in front of the FreshDirect plant and refusing to be driven away by security guards.

The IWW campaign received considerable encouragement from many of the drivers, helpers and runners who make up the FreshDirect transportation department, as well as from workers in other departments. Many transportation workers were attracted by the IWW's democratic structure, low dues, and emphasis on workers' power on the job. These expressed skepticism of the Teamsters, whose organizer showed up only rarely in his black Continental, formed no organizing committee within the department, and failed to hold even a single meeting of workers.

Other transportation workers, however, had the impression that the election was "in the bag" for the Teamsters. As the election neared, workers failed to show up for several scheduled meetings with the IWW. A rumor circulated that the IWW had been paid by FreshDirect to split the ballot and hand management a victory. The IWWs therefore decided to suspend our efforts in the transportation department during the last weeks before the Teamsters election.

The election was held on a Tuesday. Ballots were impounded and were not counted until the next day. The final count was 133 for the Teamsters and 164 for no union, with three void ballots and two challenged ballots. The IWW campaign continues to gain steam in the other departments of FreshDirect, most notably in sortation which assembles grocery boxes for delivery to customers' homes.

Rank-and-file coalition grows

The New York City GMB is at the heart of a growing informal coalition dedicated to building democratic, worker-run organizations. Other coalition partners are Se Hace Camino al Andar/Make the Road By Walking, the Harlem Tenants' Council, and members of the Million Worker March Movement and the United Electrical Workers.

The coalition, dubbed the May Day Coalition, is the brainchild of IWW member Billy J. Randel. Randel conceived of the idea in connection with efforts to revive the observance of May First as the international workers' holiday here in New York. "We are building a family of workers, supporting each other in the struggle for workers' power on the job and in the community," said Randel.

Recent coalition activities include support of the 318 Restaurant Workers Union, protesting abusive conditions at the Golden Bridge restaurant on the Bowery, an informational picket at Uncle George's restaurant in Queens, where Hispanic workers complain of humiliating mistreatment by the boss, and continuing support for the IWW's campaign to organize the foodstuffs industry in the New York metropolitan area.

CORRECTION - An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Chinese Staff & Workers' Association as a member of the May Day Coalition. While the CSWA has provided valuable help and solidarity to the Coalition, it is not a member. We regret the error.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2005)

Originally posted: December 16, 2005 at iww.org