With the decline in the US of industries with traditional union strongholds and a rise in precarious, de-skilled, or informal workplaces (food service, retail, etc), worker organizing has had to adapt to a very different terrain within which to operate and succeed. In many ways, the messenger-courier industry counts among the most precarious industries (uncertainty of employment, high turnover, low labor standards, etc). So, just as at Starbucks and Jimmy John's, our forms of struggle have had to adapt to a new reality. The old approach of mainstream, "bread and butter" unions has lost traction and can't operate in this new workplace terrain. But new, adaptive forms of "unionism" have had unprecedented success, especially IWW campaigns in the courier industry and even at large chains like Starbucks.
This leads us to re-examine what "union" really is, in essence. Our work has been to form a practice that overcomes new obstacles to workers coming together, and to disprove the myth that we can't do shit to affect the day-to-day reality of working people. This article tackles these questions, drawing on the experience of IWW organizing, and proves that just as always, we workers still have the power to change our lives and make history.
This article will appear in the summer 2011 issue of the Dispatch, the IWW courier newsletter.
WHAT IS 'UNION'?
A great many people today find themselves being helplessly sucked into an economic rut. The wreckage of the Great Recession lingers, with only band-aid improvements coming down from above. Cut-backs for the working class continue: massive lay-offs, high unemployment, cut after cut in vital public services and education, and so on. We hear in the media of the plight of Main Street's supposedly vast 'middle class'. However, the workers, low-wage earners and the poor, on whose backs Wall Street props itself, constitute the vast majority.
Recently we've heard many hollow reassurances of a gradual recovery. We're fed bogus justifications for the causes of this crisis, and the suffering it's causing for billions of people all over the world. Can we hold out for things to "rebalance" on their own, in time? Can we trust the same system that created this disaster to bail the lot of its disaffected out of it, the way it did for its parasitic financiers? Not if history has anything to show us. An honest look at the past shows us that recessions and depressions are part and parcel to this chaotic economic system. We may have seen the worst of the current crisis for now, but another crisis is sure to follow sooner or later.
But while the elite continually prioritize profits at the expense of the workers, the workers have shown a historical propensity to struggle in the interest of all. While the "solutions" of the rich and their politicians promise salvation from above (which never comes) if we just vote the right way and sit tight, the workers have their own solutions for taking on their woes directly. During the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s, they organized neighborhood councils to prevent landlords from evicting poor or unemployed renters. They engaged in militant job actions in their workplaces to demand livable wages & conditions, and won. They even organized the unemployed to join employed workers in struggle because they understood that the gains they made would benefit everyone. And ultimately, they did. Some of the lasting gains won from these struggles in the US include Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act which protects workers who organize on the job, and many of the tenant protections we have today. Those working people understood that when they organized together and flexed their collective "muscle", they were much stronger. It's bold working people like these we have to thank for what livable conditions we have today.
Historically, unions have been an important muscle for the People to fight injustice and secure a life of dignity. So why are unions so maligned to so many working people today? What is the legacy of unions, and what is their importance for us now? What is a "union" really, and what should a union be?
Unions - a People's Muscle
Unions have been under attack from their adversaries since day one. They've been suppressed by violence, repressed by the law, and slandered and distorted in the mainstream media. Most of the news and information we get from newspapers and TV, especially about unions, is filtered by the same interests who fight the unions. This clearly shapes our ideas about unions, world affairs, and so on. The employing class has waged this intense war on unions because unions threaten their monopoly on resources and power. Control of information is key to maintaining that monopoly.
But while it's true that distortions and outright fabrications have damaged the image of unions in the public mind, sometimes unions make it easy for their critics to discredit them. One could point to numerous examples of unions or union leaders being corrupt, passive, disconnected from their membership, sell-outs, even racist. And when approached about joining a union, many workers see the mainstream, bureaucratic, top-down unions as just another boss when the one they already have is bad enough. The way many unions relate to their membership (or don't, for that matter) leads one to believe that they'd be better off without a union at all.
But are they "unions" when they become slow-moving service agents, taking premium payment in your dues? Are they unions when you never see union officers, nothing changes at the workplace, and you're left without a voice still? As unions leave the workplace and become just another service on the market, so many union workers find they have a "union" only in name. More and more, unions take on a "collaborationist" approach that capitulates to bosses rather than empower workers. Union "professionals" negotiate away workers' power in exchange for modest gains. Some unions have always looked out for a tiny minority of better-paid workers in such a way that pits them against other workers on the same job! And the law that workers expect to protect them - with or without a union - instead ensure little more than a headache and a heightened feeling of powerlessness. What are these unions doing around other issues affecting working people, like racism, environmental devastation, unjust wars? For many of them, little if anything.
Labor in the US is belly up. It's lost its edge. It's no wonder union membership in this country has plummeted to less than 15%. This is not the idea of workers' power that earlier unionists fought for, and that many of us are fighting for today. And today more than ever, we need to be building that kind of power.
"Workers' power" has always been central to the best elements of the labor movement. Power at work and in your daily life. Power to affect change at work and in society directly through collective action. Workers having each others' backs. When we do it together, on our terms, we have power. Through the collective struggle of all working people we can eliminate poverty, attain justice and live with dignity. Look around - we've gotten this far, but we're losing ground, and fast. The problems we face at work, in our neighborhoods and so on are problems faced by working people everywhere, and any genuine solutions to them are gonna have to come from us. We need to start by addressing our grievances directly, ourselves, through collective action on the job. We need support from other workers, and we need to have their backs too. And we need to boost up those workers who've been forgotten at the margins of society and the labor movement and struggle with them for their dignity too. That makes us all strong. That builds workers' power. That is "union".
Real Hope, Real Change
Good thing for us, there is a burgeoning movement of workers calling for a new kind of unionism. Young workers, immigrant workers, workers of color, womyn and queer workers, student workers, union and non-union workers. Retail, service, fast food, transportation, the building trades, heavy industry; skilled workers and, more and more often, workers considered "unskilled". We're disillusioned with the unions as we know them, and we're calling for a new union movement that values democracy, diversity, and a future worth fighting for. And we're not waiting for someone to come along and build it for us. We're not buying the rhetoric of salvation from above. We know that if it worked that way we'd have been saved long ago! We're building it now, and it's not a moment too soon.
Since 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World union has maintained its position on the most progressive edge of the labor movement. We took on injustice wherever we found it, particularly among workers to whom most unions, and much of society, had shut their doors. The historic textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts of 1912 involved mostly women immigrant workers facing speed-ups and deteriorating working conditions. Deemed "unorganizable" by establishment unions, the IWW helped these workers coordinate a large multi-lingual strike against starvation wages and won significant demands. On the docks in 1913 Philadelphia, the IWW led the formation of a strong multiracial longshore union that made great strides for longshore workers and maintained a heavy presence for many years. Marine Transport Industrial Union Local 8 harnessed an industry that had long seemed impenetrable to unions, even though it was characterized by the most brutal working conditions. Local 8's earnest commitment to inter-racial and democratic unionism broke a pattern of racially divisive organizing efforts by other unions, and helped secure much stronger solidarity and job control for all its members.
This legacy of the IWW has continued for decades. In more recent years we've gained prominence organizing in such low-wage, high turn-over hellholes as Starbucks Coffee. Against many odds, workers at Starbucks locations across the US and elsewhere are leading their own dynamic campaign for a living wage and dignity on the job. Through direct action and union-wide solidarity, they've achieved a pay raise, put abusive managers in check, fought successfully against bigotry and harassment, and made their workplaces safer. The company, in spite of their public face of social responsibility, has attacked the union on the job and in the courts, only to lose every time! That's right - workers can take on behemoths like Starbucks when they act collectively, and succeed. The Starbucks Workers Union grows still as it inspires workers who until now had no hope for a voice at work.
Starbucks is only one of many places you'll find the IWW today. With a presence in many industries and social justice movements already, our objective is to empower workers in all industries to defend themselves, improve their conditions, and transform society to meet the needs of all instead of the few. Our campaigns address a variety of workers' issues: better pay, shorter hours, affordable healthcare, harassment and abuse, unsafe working conditions, access to education and public services, free speech, police violence, a voice on the job, and more. We address these issues through careful organizing and collective action, and shift the balance of power in favor of the ones doing the work. We take to heart the old motto: "Labor is entitled to all it creates". All workers everywhere - even in your industry - are duly entitled, and can do this work.
"Organize Now, Organize RIGHT!"
So what can you do to help this work along? Call us today! We'll put you in touch with IWW members in your area, and members who work in your industry. Ask about our Organizer Trainings, where you can get the skills to start organizing in your industry right away. We'll be there to support and mentor you, and you'll be part of a large movement that takes "Solidarity" seriously, and changes lives.
We have a lot of work to do, but so much to gain. The future is really in our hands. Won't you join us in this new union movement?