Fast Food Workers Strike: What is and what isn’t the Fight for Fifteen campaign?

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By Adam Weaver

Note: This is a short prequel to a longer soon to be released analysis piece on the Fight for Fifteen campaign.

August 29, 2013 – A called for nation-wide strike of fast food workers by the Fight for Fifteen campaign (FFF) is set to go down today. Surely a historic moment, this is the first large scale and national strike involving fast food workers who are at the core of the low-wage service industry. Beginning with a series of strikes among fast food workers in New York City late last year, the campaign and the called for strike is organized by the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), though in many cities this is being organized in conjunction with allied institutional non-profit organizations.

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A Super Market Story: Get Out As Fast As You Can

By Adam W.

Originally published in De-Bug Magazine # 16, December 2006

Working at a grocery store is a world to its own. Although the customers strolling through the aisles may not see it, the workers at a store can be like a family ­ brothers and sisters, older parent figures, crazy Uncles. And just like a family, there can be generation gaps. At my store, we had mainly two kind of folks, the 20-something-workers, many who were slowly working their way through community college, and the older workers we called the “lifers.” It wasn’t just how the young folks saw them, but how they saw themselves — stuck.
In the break room was where I would chop it up with the lifers. When the managers would do their paperwork in the early mornings, Gary, a lifer with words of wisdom, would sit across the break room table from me.
“You gotta get out of that credit card debt, start saving money right away. Are you going to school?”  he would lecture. With a stern look and a pointing finger covered by a rubber glove, he would talk straight to me like an older uncle. He would tell the story about back in his day, working at Safeway was like being a teacher, nurse, or a firefighter. It was a respected job that you could buy a house and send your kids to college with.

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The ‘Peaceful Revolution in Egypt’: Protest through the eyes of the powerful and the nature of the uprising

What are all these references to the ‘peaceful revolution in Egypt’ that I’m hearing in the media? From the images I saw, it was moltovs, sticks and organized resistance beating back the government thugs and plain clothes police officers who were attempting to attack and discredit the protest movement.

The dust hasn’t even landed on the floor yet in Egypt and already the spin masters of the media and political figures are already laying out a revisionist narrative of what happened as somewhat akin to “fluffy peace demonstrations” in the words of one friend. I think this is interesting because in trying to co-opt an uprising against a dictator held in place by the US for decades and which will be a huge blow to US power in the Middle East (especially if it spreads further) I think we are able to glimpse in action how power structures either co-opt or demonize protest movements.

So are the recent protests in Egypt peaceful? They could be termed non-violent if non-armed confrontation and property destructive fit into that definition, but certainly not peaceful. But being one of those folks who during the WTO protests back in 1999 was attacked (and even threatened to be punched in the face believe it or not) for breaking codes of ‘non-violence’ by bringing out newspaper stands into the street when riot police were attacking people with tear gas or forming a line to push back police who were beating on people doing a sit down blockade of an intersection, I have a hard time listening to the rhetoric of a ‘peaceful revolution’ in Egypt.

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Relaunch and Recommended Readings

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Machete 408 is back serving you up with a new series of postings after a summer hiatus. A continuing state of joblessness and downgrading to a slower internet connection both put a bit of a damper on the political juices that went into the blog. But despite these, there’s a nice backlog of recently published pieces that I hope Machete 408 readers will check out. Below is a collage of recommended and recently published articles and commentaries.

Did anyone notice a coup happening somewhere? Writing on the recent coup in Honduras, Jose Antonio Gutierrez of Ireland’s Worker Solidarity Movement (WSM) as well as the Frente de estudiantes Libertarios (FeL) in Chile, provides analysis with “Coup in Honduras: The Return of Guerillas or the Tactics of Attrition?.” Also is a piece on the potential of the recent popular uprising in Iran in response to stolen elections. “The Iranian Election, A ‘Legacy of Martyred Flowers’” is by Farah, an Iranian whom is also a member of the WSM. Both pieces appear on the Anarkismo international anarchist news and publishing site and Farah’s is followed by a lively debate in the comments section.

Looking at a global trend is “Workers Creating Hope: Factory Occupations and Self-Management” by Shawn Hattingh from Monthly Review Zine, which gives a brief overview of the growing factory and workplace occupations around the globe. The piece concludes, “The actions of these workers [involved in occupations] are inspirational. It seems likely that more and more workers will begin adopting and adapting the idea of factory occupations as a viable way to save jobs and reclaim the dignity that bosses have tried to take away from them. Perhaps what we are also seeing through the occupations, takeovers, and self-management is a glimpse of what a post-capitalist world, created by the workers and the poor themselves, would look like.”

Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity? On the movement and political analysis tip is the Advance the Struggle blog, founded earlier this year and written by Bay Area writers influenced by various strains of Marxism. Of interest are several pieces debating the movement that surrounded the killing of Black, 22 year old Oakland resident, Oscar Grant at a BART station on New Years Day 2009. Included is three pieces. “Unfinished Acts” is an insurrectionary anarchist piece created in the format of a composite narrative play; “Justice for Oscar Grant: A Missed Opportunity?” is a solid piece with excellent critical analysis of both the role of the RCP and the non-profit dominated CAPE coalition that led much of the community response; and “Bring the Struggle, Advance the Ruckus” a response to “Missed Opportunity” by Oakland members of the revolutionary group Bring The Ruckus is also worthwhile as well. I won’t link the pieces individually, instead you should go to their blog and find them.

For all those in the labor movement disillusioned with the lack of passage of EFCA (suprise, suprise) is the article “Introducing the Employee Liberation Act” by Daniel Gross of the IWW. There is much to be critical about of the EFCA (See the Machete 408 piece on EFCA here), but what Gross provides us with is a total rethinking of what ails the labor movement and what changes in the legal arena might actually allow for advances by workers instead of card check recognition. Its a bit of a wish list, but what he proposes is a three pronged bill that would: 1) Make discrimination against organizing in the workplace on par with federal civil rights protections around race and gender discrimination. This would make worker rights a recognized civil right as it should; 2) End the second class, modern Jim Crow status of undocumented immigrants in workplace across the US; and 3) Eliminate legal barriers and restrictions on strikes, which would unleash worker’s most powerful weapons against the power of bosses: that of solidarity and the ability to bring profits to a halt.

On an uplifting note is an AK Press blog picture report on the 2nd Annual LA Southern California Anarchist Conference, with nice shots of the jewlery, cultural and publishing vendors, as well as some of the performers and presenters for the event.

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Finally, on the anarchist political organization theory front we have the long awaited English translation of “Huerta Grande” by a good comrade at The Left Winger blog. The 1972 piece is considered a seminal theoretical text of the Federación Anarquista Uruguaya (FAU), which played a leading role in spawning the especifist current within the South American anarchist movement. Also be sure to read this “quick and dirty rought history piece” on the FAU for background and context.

As well, we have a recent translation of South American Anarchist philosopher Angel Cappelletti (1927-1995) posted on the AK Press Blog “Revolution by the Book.” Cappelletti was born in Argentina and spent the later half of his life in Venezuela, becoming a key intellectual figure in the libertarian left, authoring several works on philosophy, anarchism and Latin America. Supporters have recently created a Spanish language archive site of his work. And last but not least is another piece from Jose Antonio Gutierrez, who again offers us some worthwhile thoughts, but this time on strategy and the role of anarchist organization with his Considerations About the Anarchist Program. Here’s an excerpt:

The essence of the Platform is how to build an organisation that unites like-minded anarchists based on concrete proposals and tactics – that is, a “political organisation” as opposed to what is a purely ideological group. In this tradition, it is perfectly fair that we ask ourselves how many of our organisations, leaving aside any pretensions, have actually managed to reach the level of development of a political organisation. At present, the majority of these groupings are only propaganda groups. The principle difference between a political organisation and a propaganda group is not its number of militants nor its level of militancy, nor even the political insertion of its members. The principle difference is the simple answer to the question: what can we offer the people? While propaganda groups can not offer more than a political and ideological vision and, in the best cases, a few slogans, the revolutionary political organisation can offer a course of action; a programme; a tactical line; a strategy; short-, medium- and long-term objectives.

A Labor of Criticism

  The labor movement and criticism are certainly two things that are not usually found together. On the level of day-today functioning the internal culture of many leading US mainstream unions perhaps share a fair amount in common with the military or a centralized political party– where participants are expected to “toe the line” on key issues, and most forms of criticism are frowned upon, if not looked at as close to treason– instead of an open culture of debate and critical discussion. On the broader level, around issues such as strategy, organizing models and structure, any debate to be had is largely conducted in closed door meetings by top officials. In fact, authors Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin in their recent book Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice speak of a “toxic culture within the overall union movement that denies the importance of debate.” (124) 

  The recent conflict between the UNITE and HERE sides of the formerly merged HERE-UNITE, with SEIU teaming up on the side of UNITE, is a perfect example. Each party has cooked up more or less smokescreen issues to justify their power plays for control over members and organizing resources. In their attacks on each other members and staff have been bombarded with letters, flyers, mailings and even pre-recorded phone calls and some with ominous messages which take a page from the play book of union busting efforts. While I believe more more is yet to be revealed, we can gain insight into how some of this has playd out by looking at the PR battle of anonymous websites each side has used, such as HERE’s “One UNITE-HERE” and UNITE/SEIU’s project “Workers United,” which is threatening to raid HERE’s hotel and hospitality membership (who on their website reveal their affiliation with SEIU, but previously did not).

  As each side rallies its troops, demanding the loyalty of staff and members, it becomes harder to separate fact from fiction, though in the bigger picture a more true portrait of each player emerges. But amidst the intrigue, how can we develop a critical understanding of the problems the labor movement faces? And how can the labor movement develop a culture of criticism?

  I believe these two pieces are helpful starting points and examples. The following articles were published in Monthly Review’s webzine, which is a project of the same foundation that publishes the influential independent left/socialist magazine. Also see their listing of labor related articles here. The first piece, “When the Union is the Boss” by Kevin Funk and published in early 2006, is the story of a young left/radical-leaning college graduate who goes to work for SEIU as a staff organizer– which is the likely demographic of SEIU organizers. Here he tells his story of a backfired electoral campaign, which is not entirely untypical in my view of their approach to organizing, along with the fierce opposition he encounters to any suggestion that SEIU staff might form their own union.Solidaridad.jpg picture by adam_freedom

   In “A Union is Not a ‘Movement’” by Monthly Review Editor Michael D. Yates, is a 1977 reprint from their magazine of a very early criticism of the UFW under Cesar Chavez. While I’m not quite sure if I would agree with the authors characterizations of the UFW and its needs, it does take up the question of the autocratic leadership of Chavez. Also a useful read, perhaps more so than Yates piece from the late 1970s, are a links to more recent articles in a similar vein, including a 2006 seven part investigative series by an LA Times reporter that deals with Chavez’s legacy and the subsequent decline of the union.

Remaking Labor–From the Top-Down? Bottom-Up? or Both?

J4J.jpg picture by adam_freedom

  This is an amazing review which captures what many folks that I know have been saying since the early 2000’s. The writer, long time labor activist Steve Early, contrasts the perspectives between two recent authors and their analysis of the labor movement in LA Stories: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement by UCLA professor Ruth Milkman and US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above the Promise of Revival from Below by Labor Notes co-founder Kim Moody. It articulates well the critique of the professional staff driven “change from above” unions (such as SEIU and the unions associated with the Change to Win Coalition) which often brand themselves as progressive or social movement unions, or are characterized as such by their supporters on the left and academia. What the review unfortunately doesn’t do well is delve into the concrete of  Moody’s potentially alternative vision for “revival from below.” Early roundly criticizes Milkman’s support for SEIU and the “change from above” approaches in the labor movement:

Milkman “never addresses the serious concern … that SEIU growth has been achieved, in some sectors, at the expense of contract standards, community allies, workers’ rights, membership participation, and leadership accountability.” Milkman’s infatuation with the vanguard role of the union’s “innovators”—college educated organizers, researchers, strategic campaign coordinators, local officers and trustees—also leaves little room for examining more incisively how SEIU operatives actually interact with the working members who nominally employ—and, more rarely, elect—them.

  Unfortunately the boosterism and cheerleading on behalf of the “change from above” self-styled reformers that comes from academics like Ruth Milkman as well as other authors such as UC Berkeley professor Kim Voss (with her Hard Work, Remaking the American Labor Movement with Rick Fantasia)was parroted or perhaps reluctantly swallowed by many on the left so disappointed with the conservatavism of mainstream labor that any promise of change seemed better than nothing. Only with the recent moves by SEIU and the division between HERE-UNITE has the thin curtain been pulled away to reveal the situation that has been at hand for many years. Sadly I feel many radicals, myself included of course, missed the boat in not putting forward these criticisms sooner when they became apparent in the early 2000’s, perhaps even the late 1990’s. Let it be a word to the wise.

 

Remaking Labor–From the Top-Down? Bottom-Up? or Both?

By Steve Early (original link to this review online here)  

Review of: Milkman, Ruth. L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. 244 pp.$24.95 (paper).

Moody, Kim. U.S. Labor In Trouble And Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above and the Promise of Revival from Below. New York, NY: Verso, 2007. 289 pp.$29.95 (paper).

From Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, March, 2008 Vol 11. Issue #1

The veterans of Sixties radicalism who became union activists in the 1970s belonged to a variety of left-wing groups. Regardless of other political differences, most of them shared one common belief—namely, that union transformation and working class radicalization was a bottom up process. As Stanley Aronowitz observed in Socialist Review (nee Socialist Revolution) in 1979—when Ruth Milkman, author of L.A. Story, belonged to its “Bay Area Collective”—young radicals usually became “organizers of rank-and-file movements” and builders of opposition caucuses. They immersed themselves in “day-to-day union struggles on the shop floor” and the politics of local unions, often displaying in the latter arena “almost total antipathy toward the union officialdom.” Because “union revitalization” also required organizing the unorganized, rather than just proselytizing among existing union members, Aronowitz approved, “under some circumstances,” leftists becoming “”professional paid organizers.” But he encouraged those who took this path to “see their task as building the active rank and file, even where not connected to caucus movements.”

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Looking at the Contours of the Crisis

capitalismisnotworking.jpg capitalism isn't working picture by adam_freedom

  With “Contours of the Crisis” in the latest issue of Upping the Anti #8 (see two posts previous), Aidan Conway interviews three leading thinkers on contemporary capitalism who also each happen to be professors of political economy at York University in Toronto as well. They are David McNally, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch. Below are three highlights that raise worthwhile points to think about around the financial crisis and building “the other world that is possible” as we might say.

  Here on the relationship between class struggle at home and imperialism abroad, which are intracately interwoven.

  Sam Gindin: If and when, during the next decades, the foundations of American empire were to really crumble, class struggles within the imperial heartland itself would likely play a major role in bringing this on – precisely because of the way in which the external and internal dimensions of American empire are intertwined. At the same time, the ability to pacify the citizens of the empire is critically dependant on the ability to maintain wider structures of global exploitation and integration. (emphasis added)

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