Learning from Our Mistakes: IWWs Criticize and Reflect on Their Organizing

Mobile Rail workers marching the picket line on strike outside of Chicago.

Mobile Rail workers marching the picket line on strike outside of Chicago. August 2013.

The other day a friend posted a question along the lines of “The IWW seems to put out a lot of criticism of other union’s organizing, but it doesn’t seem like they are willing to criticize their own organizing publicly.” I thought that would be a fair point- if it was true of course.

There’s actually a pretty robust level of discussion in the IWW around the failures, victories and the organizing models the IWW uses. Naturally not every member is engaged with these discussion and as well some of that discussion takes place in internal forums. For instance in Portland members circulate a booklet called “Learning from our mistakes” that discusses their campaigns and their pitfalls but this would be an example of something not circulated publicly.

But most important is that these criticisms have helped shaped and evolved the IWW’s model of organizing. As well many in the IWW see this as contributing towards a working class intellectual culture- one where shop floor organizers and participants in the organizing are creating the lessons from their experience instead of relying on professional thinkers and academics to do this work for us.

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

Kansas_City_fast_food_workers_strike

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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Self-Managed Capitalism: Criticism of Richard Wolff and Workers Cooperatives

ImageDiscussing the economic crisis, austerity, and his advocacy of worker cooperatives, Richard Wolff has been getting a boost of attention with recent appearances on Democracy Now!, NPR and with Bill Moyer. But does Wolff represent an anti-capitalist perspective that those who believe in revolutionary social change can get excited about? My take is that while his views represents an important shift in public discourse there are some major weaknesses and in what he presents and which I hope to explore briefly. Continue reading

Revised Repost: Revolutionaries in High Places, Van Jones

Van Jones with fist in the air

Note: Bringing this back with a revised version. This commentary piece was removed after the attacks by right-wing blog and media sites on Van Jones intensified and led up to Obama washing his hands of Jones with his resignation. Right-wing sites cited “left wing blogger Machete408” as further ‘proof’ of Obama’s undercover socialist credentials (read an actual socialist refute this total non-sense here). As for Jones’ himself, he’s likely made some major political transitions. A mentor of his touts the pro-business, market-based ideas Van has promoted for years, including in his best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy.” (link) Though I think it’s fair to say that the tendency on the revolutionary left, Van Jones formerly included, which views alliances and involvement with the state and electoral politics—state power if you will— as a strategic orientation is alive and well. (See link, link, link and critique, critique) See also my follow up piece “On Van Jones’ Resignation.”

Did anyone catch the news that Van Jones of Green Jobs for All, and formerly of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland and a revolutionary organization in the Bay Area, was recently tapped by the Obama administration to serve as an advisor around green jobs? The position was officially dubbed the Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation on the White House Council on Environmental Quality, that is before Obama accepted Jones’ resignation following attacks by the right-wing blogosphere and Glen Beck on his radical past.

I’ll get back to that in a minute. I was having a conversation with a friend the other night about the legacy of sixties revolutionaries and Marxists who attempted to “proletarianize” themselves or as some called it “colonize the working class.” Many of these radicals, who were largely from more middle-class backgrounds and college graduates (or those who after becoming radicalized dropped out of college), got jobs in factories and various industries with the goal of bringing the messages of socialism and revolutionary politics to the working class. (For more on this see Max Elbaum’s excellent history of the sixties communist left with Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Che and Mao) Many of them also became active in the unions at these workplace, whom were largely conservative bureaucracies if not outright reactionary. Continue reading

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.

May 1: International Worker’s Day – Día Internacional de los Trabajadores

haymarket-square-front.jpg picture by adam_freedom  Yet again May Day quickly approaches.  Since 2006 the immigrant rights marches- made up of millions of undocumented migrant workers along with their supporters, families and children- has brought back May 1st to its original roots in the US. But many are still unaware of its origins in US labor history and the impact this commemorative day still has internationally- such as you can still walk into neighborhoods in Mexico and find streets such as “Calle Los Mártires de Chicago” (Martyrs of Chicago Street).

  Below is a short, pamphlet length piece I edited on the origins and radical history of May Day. For an in depth look you might try Paul Avrich’s classic “The Haymarket Tragedy” and AK Press offers a listing of books they carry on the subject here.  -AW

 What is May Day and why is it called International Workers Day?

May 1st, International Worker’s Day, commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world, and is recognized in every country except the United States and Canada. This is despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880’s in the United States, with the fight for an eight-hour work day led by immigrant workers. The recent historic marches and protests for immigrant rights, which began with “El Gran Paro Americano 2006,” have brought back into our memories May 1 as an important day of struggle. Although the history of the day has largely been forgotten in the United States, it is still actively remembered and celebrated today by workers, unionists and oppressed peoples all over the world. In fact you can still walk through neighborhoods in Mexico and find streets such as Calle Los Martires de Chicago in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, commemorating the leaders of the eight-hour day movement who were imprisoned and executed.

It is not surprising that the government, business leaders, mainstream union leaders, and the media would want to hide the true history of May Day, portraying it as a “communist” holiday celebrated only in the Soviet Union. In its attempt to erase the history and significance of May Day, the United States government declared May 1st to be “Law Day,” and gave us instead Labor Day—a holiday devoid of any historical significance other than a three weekend holiday at the end of the summer. Continue reading

The Spark We Need – The Chicago Sit-Down Strike

 An inspiring piece celebrating the victory and signifigance of the Chicago Republic Window and Door factory occupation in late 2008. -AW

The Spark We Need – The Chicago Sit-Down Strike

By Daniel Gross- Counterpunch, December 8, 2008

Republicoccupation.jpg picture by adam_freedomThe corporations got sloppy. From the hedge-fund parasites to the housing market fraudsters, the corporate criminals have shown their hand. Their filthy fingerprints are all over the economic pain blanketing the country and the world.

To add insult to injury, the corporate agents in government, also known as politicians, are looting incomprehensible billions of dollars to turn over to the fat-cat executives.

Working families have long known the pain of stagnant wages, steep rents, and unaffordable heath care and education in the United States. But there’s no doubt that this recession has squeezed the vise beyond what many of us have seen in our lifetimes.

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Outline of US Labor History with a Focus on the Role of the Left

nyiwwpicket.jpg picture by adam_freedom
UPDATED and EXPANDED May 6, 2009. Below is a rough outline of the US labor movement that I created as part of a presentation. I’m attempting to periodize by decade, important organizations and broad trends. A particular focus I attempt to also give is looking at the changing relationship of the left within the labor movement. This article is now mirrored on the Black Rose Anarchist Federation site.  -AW

Outline of US Labor History with a Focus on the Role of the Left

· Colonial through Pre-Civil War Period– indentured servants, sailors and slaves organize minor labor protests and rebellions, and local level proto-union organizations. Some of these efforts included both white indentured servants and slaves cooperating together. Fearful elites grant privileges to whites servants and enshrined a harsh system of chattel slavery for Africans such as through the Naturalization Act of 1790 which granted citizenship only to “free white persons.” Also during this period sexual division of labor would produce laws, culture and practices of unpaid work for girls and women that would last for centuries.

· Race and Labor- Race plays a key role in US labor history whereas early white servants and later workers were granted privileges, access to land, and the right to vote (far before male suffrage was granted in most western countries). Leading into the Civil War period, many white workers cling to the ideology of “free labor,” seeing themselves as free whites and wanting to return to an imagined golden era of artisans, small farmers and shop keepers which they hold in contrast to unfree, slavish and permanently proletarianized workers of color. Because of this, much of the history of unionism has been of white, skilled male workers (though the definition of who was considered white changed over time to incorporate various European immigrants such as Germans, Irish, Eastern Europeans, etc) protecting their privileges against the unskilled, women and non-white workers. Also a much smaller current of homespun labor radicalism emerges, which is sometimes called a “proto-marxism” by historians.

Civil War is a defining conflict in US history over what type of labor system the country will have with Northern elites eventually imposing free labor in contrast to Southern plantation owners who wished to maintain race-based chattel slavery. Following the collapse of Reconstruction after Civil War, white elites impose the laws and customs associated with Jim Crow that creates an apartheid system that lastes into the 1960’s and making blacks the most exploited segment of workers. Laws created across the country during the Jim Crow era, such as for vagrancy, apply for all poor and non-white.      Continue reading

Howard the Coward: The Day My Boss Ran Away

biz_starbucks.jpg picture by adam_freedom

 

  Imagine if you worked for a huge corporation making crumbs and you had the chance to confront the CEO of your company?  What would you say to the man in charge who had been thwarting your every attempt to organize a union to demand better pay and justice on the job?

 

  Well one member of the Starbucks Union of the IWW had a chance to do that- and the boss simply ran away. Its a great story captured in the below blog post and one that has been widely popular among retail and services workers across the internet. Starbucks of course mysteriously laid off this worker two weeks later, (read the follow up story here) but of course union members are fighting this through organizing and legal action and the incident will likely become one more black eye to the image of Starbucks.      -AW

Howard the Coward: The Day My Boss Ran Away

by Joe Tessone

03/03/09- The time is 8:55 AM, 5 minutes before my alarm clock was supposed to sound I am awoken by a text message which says that Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO and #1 union buster, is having a press conference at the Oak and Rush Starbucks location. I jump out of bed, get dressed, and haul downtown. By the time I get there, the news cameras are gone. I look around and there he is sitting behind a merchandise wall in an interview with a few reporters. I order an Iced Tall Passion Tea… no need for caffeine, I’m fired up.

My old District Manager is in the cafe greeting customers and she asks me why I’m there. “Just getting a drink,” I respond. She then proceeds to make a call on her cell phone, obviously calling upper management. After I get my beverage, I find a seat, set my bag down, and I approach him.

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Recession: Time to Organize

In celebrating the spiffy, new look, Machete408 brings you this agitational piece writen by a leader in the national messenger industry organizing campaign of the IWW…. “Todo el poder al pueblo” -AW

Poderalpueblo.jpg picture by adam_freedom

Recession: Time to Organize

 

by Mykke Holcomb, IWW

 

We started this year in the middle of the hardest economic times we’ve seen in decades. The real estate bubble popped, followed by the dissolution of longstanding financial institutions, the subsequent doling-out of taxpayer money to bail them out, and THEN the gouging of a weakened U.S. workforce. Tens of thousands of workers are now jobless, and thousands more lining up behind them every week. All industries are feeling the pinch with this crisis.

In our precarious workforce, we now find ourselves on even shakier ground than before. With no net to fall back on, many are laying low to hold on to what they’ve got. Many workers who’ve been laid off have justified their bosses cutting them loose, naively assuming that their employers simply couldn’t afford to keep paying them. Most truckers know better. We know better than most how much money we generate for our bosses and the coporations, and how little we see of it. For example, as Citigroup sacked 30,000 of its workers, it would come as no surprise to us that just the year before, its CEO raked in $15,105,376 (1). As Sotheby’s so desperately sought to save $7 million to stay afloat by cutting a quarter of its U.S. workforce, we might have guessed that its CEO pocketed $10,341,357 in that same year (2). And of course we’re not shocked to find that Richard K. McClelland, Director and Chairman of the Board of courier industry giant Dynamex, took home $1,222,513 (3).

There is no good reason these lay-offs should be occurring. There is no good reason we should catch the brunt of a recession we did not create. We created the profits the bosses and companies are protecting when they fire us. Or when they cut our pay and benefits. Or when they give us less work. And then of course we’re expected to understand. The figures above should suffice to explain why usually our hardship is not necessary. But nonetheless, you may wonder what we can do about it. Working people have an inspiring history of struggle and victories, even in times of recession. In fact, in these tougher times it is all the more vital for us to be organized. To accept defeat now will only hurt us more later. In this historic time, we may find history has valuable lessons for us.

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