Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Pamphlet as Passport (part 2)

Last time in 'Workers Power' I discussed an information picket that blocked access to a university in Spain and some resulting thoughts on the nature of class power, namely the threat of and willingness to disrupt production. Class consciousness cannot simply be “Oh my buddy and I at work have the same grievances.” We must acknowledge our collective power and our promote the willingness to use it for our benefit. Exercising that power involves being disruptive, sometimes to a degree that we find uncomfortable. However, workers cannot win demands and improve their position without being prepared to significantly upset the status quo.

As a revolutionary organisation, the IWW has a vision beyond just a society where the producers are simply in a better bargaining position. We want to switch the balance of power between classes entirely to ultimately abolish the wage system. Here I think a second event from the action is instructive.
Eventually the cars trying to get through information picket started to get backed up pretty bad. Being the foreigner who couldn’t speak the language, a good role for me was clearly traffic direction. So I directed traffic effectively for awhile. When one of the organizers came to check up on me I queried whether we were trying to fuck up traffic or distribute propaganda. I aksed because we were doing really good at fucking up traffic, but I wasn’t sure how effective the propaganda was when people were furious from having to wait 10-20 minutes to get anywhere. Fortunately our objective was to disrupt traffic and we were doing a good job of it!

If that was the case, why bother with traffic direction at all? Not managing drivers would have created additional havoc that added to our existing disruption, thereby adding to the basis of our class power. Unconciously, my comrades and I wanted to prove that we are capable of managing and maintaining some sense of order at the picket because how we act now reflects on how we will act when we become dominant. If the population at large only ever sees us causing a mess then they will inevitably turn to the forces of reaction to defend them from demonised revolutionaries.

I’m not saying this attitude should stay the cudgel of the working class ― it should still come down like a pile of bricks on our target and when the dust has cleared I am happy with leaving the mess for the ‘haves’ to clean up. But managing the unintended consequences of actions should be part of any strategy which has a goal of fundamentally altering the balance of power. In the case of our action, we could have let the drivers eventually cause a traffic accident. Without our intervention it was not a question of if, but of when.
If our objective is to solely cause enough havoc to force bosses and bureaucrats to cede to our demands, then sure, let the cars crash and burn. But the secondary function of revolutionary unions has always been to prepare its membership to assume the duties of a functional society. I’m not sure we are doing that in the IWW. We must be more capable at brinkmanship while simultaneously being able to manage the potential fallout of it. Within revolutionary unions we understand the need and execution of brinkmanship better than mainstream unions, but I’m not convinced we’re preparing ourselves or our fellow workers for control.
Some radicals are good at raising class consciousness, because we accept the brinkmanship implicit in it. But I want to consider what we should address in our direct action if we ever want the managers’ business to be our business. We have half the formula in place: Our actions should demonstrate power to the boss and, when necessary, the public. That achieves whatever our short-term objective, be it shutting down a university or getting a workers back-wages. I propose that we must also consider collateral damage beyond our objective because this demonstrates responsibility to the public. Having the public recognize both power and responsibility being displayed in class struggle swings their support away from conservative reaction and paves the way for the abolishment of class roles. The public will see the abolishment of class roles as a reversal of positions and it is critical that they see working class people as responsible enough to hold their new class position. Managing the fallout of our actions will give us and the public a glimpse of our power to run a new society, in addition to our power to fuck up the bosses' system of exploitation. To exercise class power without showing the ability to manage the after effects on bystanders is to shoot the enterprise of revolutionary unions in the foot.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Pamphlet as Passport (Part 1)

The Pamphlet as Passport

Spain in June was hot. Not in the temperature sense, but in the 'labour stuggle is about to cook off' sense. The rhetoric in Europe isn't about 'recovery' the way it is here in North America: Everything is 'crisis', 'austerity,' and 'we must all sacrifice.' 'We,' of course, means workers and the first target was the militant public sector workers. This sector include staff in hospitals, schools, and government offices. My first question upon arriving in Barcelona to my host was “What's going on, and how do I help?” The response was “Come to our action.”

It was an information picket at a university outside of Barcelona. We had a two-sided handout in wordy and less-wordy form. There were multiple access points to the campus but it was possible to occupy them all with about three groups. I was initially confused about the objectives, and clearly others were as well. Before arriving I thought we were doing a full blockade. Then I later thought we were just handing out flyers, later still I was informed that our objective was to ruin traffic around the university. We were to functionally block the university without announcing it. That didn’t require actually stopping every driver. This was an important distinction.

During the initial phase, when we were just pamphleting, after a certain period of time the drivers began treating the pamphlet as their passport to the campus. After awhile we started getting cars who already had a pamphlet. It was almost cute the way the drivers would desperately wave it in order to get past us. What I realized was that this was an assent to our power. Whether or not they acknowledged the legitimacy of our makeshift passport, they acknowledged our power. Legitimate or not, we controlled access to the campus. Not only that, we had a more lasting effect with the ‘pamphlet as passport’: If these people planned on leaving campus and returning, they had to carry that pamphlet with them the entire day. All of a sudden a shitty piece of propaganda has acquired the status of one of those critical things you carry around with you every day. Like your drivers license.

Let that sink in.

Realizing the power we had and seeing how we could use it shocked me. We speak a lot about class conciousness, but we rarely talk about power. Raising class consciousness needs to have a component that acknowledges the fact that we are using and wielding power. We don’t really have the ability to be surgical with it so it mostly takes the form of “We will fuck your shit up if we don’t get what we want.” This is the core of the strike action. Recognizing this truth is critical. The ‘what we want’ part can be fair, equitable, and irrelevant without a foundation of ‘we can and will fuck your shit up.‘

Class consciousness is not just “Oh my buddy and I at work have the same grievances.” It is the acknowledgement of our collective power and our willingness to use it for our benefit. Exercising that power, even in small ways like pamphlet-as-passport, demonstrate the kind of class consciousness that is the bread-and-butter underpinning day-to-day class struggle. Without this experience and understanding of collective power we risk crippling our own class consciousness.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Vicky Starr

Vicky Starr
by Staughton Lynd

When my wife Alice and I interviewed Vicky Starr in 1969 and 1971 for a collection of oral histories called Rank and File, Vicky called herself "Stella Nowicki" because she didn't want her employer at the time (the University of Chicago) to know about her radical activities in the 1930s. When we interviewed her again for a second collection more than a quarter century later, she had retired and had no problem in using her real name.

Vicky Starr was the child of Eastern European immigrants. She grew up on a farm in Michigan. "We had no electricity. We had outdoor privies." Vicky ran away from home at age seventeen because "there was not enough money to feed the family during the Depression."

Vicky's father had been a coal miner and had "bought a few books about Lenin and Gorky." She recalled that when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed "the foreign-born people were in mourning for a week." The family practiced what Vicky's father described as a socialist idea, "No work, no eat."

Agnes, a woman from Chicago, had come to the farm for her health. Agnes invited Vicky to go back to Chicago with her. Vicky at first lived with Agnes' family and through them met a member of the Young Communist League named Herb March.

Vicky did housework for $4 a week and hated it. Herb March suggested she get a job in the stockyards.

Vicky began in the "cook room" where women cut big chunks of meat into smaller pieces to make hash. She worked six-hour shifts at 37 1/2 cents an hour.

On the floor below women made hotdogs and one day a woman got her fingers caught in putting meat into the chopper. The fingers were cut off. All six floors stopped work and sat down. The company put in safety devices. But Vicky was identified as a leader and fired.

A friend was recalled to the stockyards but had another job and didn't want to go. Using the friend's name, Vicky got back in.

Communist leader William Z. Foster and other full-time organizers passed through Chicago and held meetings. Leaflets were written. Students from the University of Chicago, who couldn't be fired, passed them out at the gate before work. The International Workers Order, which helped people with sickness benefits and insurance, gave union organizers access to large numbers of potential sympathizers. Vicky joined the Catholic Sodality and the Young Womens' Christian Association.

At work, the women with whom Vicky worked practiced solidarity by restricting output within agreed-on limits. But they didn't want to pay union dues. Again it was health and safety that opened a door. One of the women became paralyzed because of the intermittent freezing air to which the line was exposed, and died. "Within a week we organized that whole department."

Women often did harder work than the men and were paid less. Within the union, staff jobs went only to men. "I would be approached by men for dates and they would ask me why I was in the union, so I would tell them that I was for socialism." Vicky learned to play pool and bowl, and got men into the union that way.

In 1938, 1939, 1940 the Packinghouse Workers didn't yet have bargaining rights.  There was "tremendous ferment." Vicky recalled:

"You had this sense that people were ready to get together, to protect each other... It did happen that people were fired but when people were fired the whole department just closed down."

By the 1940s the union would bring a sound truck and thousands of people would show up for meetings in the middle of the stockyards at noontime. "The union leadership would be negotiating within a particular plant on a grievance [and if] the matter wasn't settled by a certain time, the whole department would walk out."

In 1945, with the union recognized and the war over, Vicky left packing. She married a linotypist for the Chicago Tribune and had three children. About 1950 she went back to work as a secretary at the University of Chicago.

The NLRB decided that the "appropriate bargaining unit" was clerical workers throughout the whole university. There were 1800 of them. More than eighteen buildings had to be organized.

After other unions tried and failed, the Teamsters launched a campaign. Vicky had no use for the local union president who made $200,000 a year. But twenty-one stewards were elected by secret ballot before the NLRB election and Vicky, by that time working for the Department of Education, was one of them.  Eighteen of the new stewards were women.

As in the stockyards, grievances were pursued and won before union recognition.  And after union recognition "the stewards became the bargaining committee."

Vicky worked for another ten years after the union was recognized. She remembered going to the university hospital for medical reasons after she retired. Gregarious as always, she got into conversation with the secretaries.  She said, "We helped to organize the union," And they said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Vicky introduced us to two friends and fellow spirits, Katherine Hyndman and Sylvia Woods, and the three became the protagonists of the documentary movie, "Union Maids."  Sylvia, an African American, helped to organize a UAW local at Bendix during World War II.  Memorably, she stated in her interview in Rank and File:

"We never had [dues] check-off.  We didn't want it.  We said if you have a closed shop and check-off, everybody sits on their butts and they don't have to worry about organizing and they don't care what happens.  We never wanted it."

In these later years Vicky Starr also separated from her husband and became an ardent proponent of womens' liberation.

Vicky says at the end of "Union Maids":

"There's some tremendous potential in people, in labor people, in working people, and in union people... They are very democratic... There's a tremendous militancy that's below the surface and that will rise and come up."

Vicky Starr died in November 2009.  Vicky Starr, presente.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It Takes More Than Direct Action

It Takes More Than Direct Action
by Colin Bossen

Over the last seven years I have been involved in three major IWW organizing campaigns. The first of these was with the Chicago Couriers Union. This campaign succeeded in building a union of bike messengers that over the last seven years has maintained a small but dedicated membership. The couriers union has, throughout its existence, managed to make a difference in the lives of the workers in the industry. Since its inception the union has: won a wage increase at the third largest courier company in Chicago; advocated for numerous workers who have been unjustly fired, denied back pay, illegally docked at work, harassed or otherwise victimized; taught novice bike messengers about safety; and improved access to buildings. The union has also organized numerous social events and bike races for members of the Chicago, national and international courier industry. These events combined with the union's victories have made the couriers union a significant presence in Chicago and in the wider industry.

The other two campaigns I have been involved with have not been as successful. The first was an effort to organize the troqueros, or port truck drivers, in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. This effort got off to a solid start. The IWW was contacted by a group of troqueros interested in organizing. As many as fifty workers attended the groups initial meeting. More importantly the group was able to organize a strike that shut down the both of the ports. Despite this spectacular job action--involving thousands of workers and disrupting a large segment of economy--the troqueros were unable to successfully build a lasting union presence in the industry.

The second failed campaign I was involved with shared similar characteristics to the troquero campaign. It involved a group of taxi workers in Cleveland. Again, there was initially great enthusiasm. Before ever meeting with the IWW the group had managed to organize meetings with as many as 80 workers in attendance. Over the course of a year, the taxi workers held a series of direct actions and protests that built some respect for them in the industry. The director of the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport met with them to listen to their concerns and they vocally presented their demands to the owners of a couple of taxi companies. After a year of this kind of activity, and despite their promising start, the taxi workers organizing efforts also petered out.

The two failed organizing campaigns had a lot in common. In both instances they took place in cities where the IWW lacked a well-organize local branch. In both instances I was trying to organize the campaign with little additional support. And in both instances the workers involved had little interest in doing institutional work of union building--people did not want to step-up to be delegates or use any sort of structure for running their meetings. This meant that the workers meetings were often dominated by personalities and there were no formal mechanisms for accountability.

The campaign that resulted from the Chicago Couriers Union provides a sharp contrast with the other two. It took place in a city with a well-organized and vibrant local branch. Between the branch and the international union, money was put together in two separate instances to fund a stipended organizer for three months. And throughout the initial phases of the campaign there were always a handful of people from outside the industry involved in organizing efforts. These differences meant that there were people to work on the campaign when the workers in the industry's interest slackened and that there was a model of organization that the couriers could refer to when building their own.

The differences between these three campaigns have led me to believe that, in order for organizing efforts to succeed in the long-term, organizers and workers must focus on institution building. I am positive that if strong IWW branches existed in either Los Angeles or Cleveland when I was working with the troqueros and taxi workers, then the outcome of both of those campaigns would have been different. Likewise, I believe that if the IWW had been able to devote a full-time stipended organizer to either campaign the results would have been different.

If the IWW is to grow into a powerful force for the working class then we must focus on making our institutions stronger. This means, at the least, better organized local branches and more resources for funding organizers. If we devote our energies to these things, we will be a force to be reckoned with. If we do not, our organizing efforts will continue to have a mixed track record and, more often than not, end in failure.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

About This Site And Index Of Columns

About this site
This web site is an archive of some material published by the Industrial Workers of the World. Most of the material on this site appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper in one of two columns, Workers Power and Minority Report.If you have thoughts about any of this, or if you would like to brainstorm about potential column ideas, please get in touch with the person who maintains this archive, at crashcourse666[at]

For an index of the columns on this site, go to

Workers Power Columns

The Workers Power column aims to offer a space to share organizing stories and thoughts on strategies and tactics for building power on the shop floor. These columns are posted here to encourage discussion. The columns are intended for members of the IWW, though non-members may find them interesting as well. The columns don’t provide all the answers, but hopefully they are thought provoking and useful. At the very least, the people who wrote them learned a lot and got clearer about our ideas by writing them.

Please consider writing for the column. Writing is a good way to think, to encourage discussion, and to share lessons and experiences. The column is mainly about ideas for building power on the job in the short term, the direction of the IWW with regard to workplace organizing in the short term, and first hand accounts of the realities of workplace organizing - in all its glory and all its failure. If you would like to submit a piece for this column in the newspaper, please e-mail it to forworkerspower[at] Submissions should be no more than 800 words.

Minority Report
Minority Report: A Different Sort of Unionism
Writings by Alexis Buss
Nowadays people in the Industrial Workers of the World tend to talk about a vision of organizing using the term “Solidarity Unionism.” The term comes partly from a book called Solidarity Unionism by Staughton Lynd. Some people used to call this “minority unionism” or “direct unionism.” One of the ways that these ideas got worked out and spread around in the IWW was by some columns written by Alexis Buss that appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper. The columns were printed under the title Minority Report. They’re also online at 

Some of this material has also been reprinted by the Chicago branch of the IWW under the title “A Union On Our Own Terms.” The columns are reprinted here partly as a piece of recent IWW history. (For more of that history, see the last chapters of the book on the first 100 years of IWW history by Fred Thomson and Jon Bekken.) More than that, though, these columns have ideas that are still relevant to organizing today.

Minority Report June 2003

Minority Report June 2003
by Alexis Buss

At recent IWW organizer trainings, we have been talking about the kinds of agreements that solidarity unionists would make with a boss. After all, we aim to secure better conditions and build upon them -- part of that means being able to negotiate with management and memorialize the agreements we reach.

Readers of my columns will regularly see me criticize elements of contracts that I think are best left out of the picture if we are to be a strong movement. Some of these elements are desired by entrenched union bureaucracies, some are desirable for management, and some serve both interests, forsaking the workers. I'm talking about dues checkoff, management prerogatives and no-strike clauses. There are other features to contracts, like binding arbitration as the last step of a grievance procedure, time lines favoring management, zipper clauses and so on that I've been known to gripe about too.

But what are the kinds of agreements we should make? Typically I talk about agreements in terms of using direct action to gain power over specific situations and negotiating to memorialize the outcome. But there are elements in present-day contracts that are very useful. What remains to be seen is if a more encompassing contract that truly protects and expands the rights of working people can be negotiated in the present climate.

To my mind, when setting out to negotiate, workers should seek to get:

    * 1) an end to employee-at-will status;

    * 2) a grievance procedure;

    * 3) whatever economic and working condition improvements they may want and;

    * 4) a past practice clause.

Most contracts contain a "progressive discipline" or "firing for cause" clause, which effectively ends employee-at-will status. I'd be interested to hear from veteran unionists what kind of progressive discipline clauses worked well in your experiences. One that we negotiated here relied on the idea of not making it easy for staff to be disciplined for simple wrongdoing. Management was obliged for each discipline to write an essay discussing the good qualities of the person being disciplined, outline specifically how performance was to be improved, and have regular meetings with the worker to discuss progress. Because it's a bit of a pain in the ass to do this, only the most serious offenses are taken up, and the former trifling nit-picky disciplines have all but vanished.

Grievance procedures are the systematic way that issues that arise in a shop are handled. Many clauses limit the definition of a grievance to issues covered by the contract, effectively cutting off workers' ability to grieve issues not anticipated by the contract. One could argue that issues that aren't covered by the contract are free from the confines of the resolutions proscribed in the contract, so perhaps this isn't the worst thing that could happen. But having a procedure that management has agreed to follow when a any kind of conflict comes up can be very advantageous to workers.

Too often I've seen the wind taken out of the sails of organizing campaigns with promises from management that are never delivered. A clear process shows everyone when they're just being blown off, and workers can more quickly decide how to up the ante. It's my preference for the last step in a grievance procedure to effectively be 'all bets are off.' Yes, have steps beforehand -- meetings to discuss the issue, put it in writing, bring in a mediator, whatever makes sense in the structure of your workplace. But letting a third party who does not have to work under the agreement he's binding you to make the ultimate decision is not ideal. Past practice clauses effectively say, "Unless we reach an agreement, the workplace stays as it is now." What this does is put the burden of changing the workplace on the shoulders of the employer. They must come to the union to talk about changes, and the union can agree or not, or negotiate. When the workers decide that a situation needs to be fixed, the grievance procedure can be used to put the discussion on a timeline. These clauses have largely disappeared from present-day contracts, but I think it's time for a revival.

Your experiences with the particulars of contracts you've worked under will help your fellow workers understand the benefits and pitfalls of certain kinds of language. Here's your invitation to share your stories -- contact us now!

Minority Report December 2002

Minority Report December 2002
by Alexis Buss

Most union campaigns get off the ground by finding out what problems exist in a workplace or industry. Workers form union committees, a campaign is launched, and workplace issues are articulated to attract more and more support for the union's cause. Most often, this organizing is done with the goal of the union being formally recognized by the boss, either by a card-check agreement or an election of some sort, so that a contract can be bargained.

But what usually happens when it is time to sit down and bargain the contract? It isn't true to say that at negotiation time the boss and union come to the table as equals and work out the best possible deal for both parties. The union most usually comes to the table from a very weak position, because it has been built not to fight for and enforce its demands, but rather to ask the boss to give it legitimacy.

This method came about when NLRA was enacted in 1935. "Labor peace" was a desirable concept for the bosses, the government and entrenched union bureaucracies. The bosses were tired of dealing with rising labor militancy -- factory takeovers, strikes, walk-outs, sit-ins, etc. Government officials had to deal with helping their pals in big business recover from the effects of this kind of organizing. And the labor bureaucrats were worried by workers who were getting too uppity and demanding the same kind of respect from them that they were demanding from the bosses. So a system was created for bosses to be given a legal mandate to bargain with the unions, and a set of laws and rules were created so that bargaining became a gentleman's game.

The expected way that unions and bosses dealt with each other was that the contract was improved upon with each new set of negotiations, so long as the company was in good health. This has changed. It is now routine for companies, ones with and without unions, to shut down plants and offices, downsize jobs, reduce pay and benefits, and generally show no consideration to workers, even during profitable times.

But here's something that has been true ever since our present set of laws was enacted: it is usual and expected for contracts to contain completely useless (worse than useless, positively harmful) language for workers -- the management prerogatives clause, and no-strike clause.

Because most unions accept that workers are on earth to be managed, and bosses should run the world as they see fit, it isn't a surprise that most union contracts allow management to have total control over a workplace. During the term of a contract, when the union is entitled to collect dues from workers through dues check-off, limiting the ability of workers to strike is also desirable for many unions to make sure that their main revenue streams are not cut off. Let alone the added benefit of avoiding the hassle of "managing" uppity workers.

When we think of how we can turn around the labor movement, we must keep these things in mind. We can't just accept "more organizing." Because even if we had more organizing of the kind we have now, we would still have to address the issue of unions not helping workers to pursue job control. We would still have to deal with concessionary bargaining.

How are we going to get off of this road? We must stop making gaining legal recognition and a contract the point of our organizing. Our unions and networks of solidarity must be able to deal with the issues that inspire most campaigns -- wages, benefits, working conditions. But just as necessary is to have a way for us to organize to address the respect (or lack of respect) workers feel on the job, our ability to control how we work, how our workplace is going to interact with our community and our world.

We have to bring about a situation where the bosses, not the union, want the contract. We need to create situations where bosses will offer us concessions to get our cooperation. Make them beg for it.

This is one of the potentials of minority unionism (by the way, this is the last column that I'll be using this term -- in the next month, I'd like your help in figuring out a new name to describe the kind of unionism we've been talking about in the pages of the Industrial Worker). The point of unionism as the IWW sees it is to organize workers in ways that our power cannot be ignored or co-opted. Minority unionism is one way to do this, because we can organize around demands without worrying about if we have a contract or legal standing. As much as possible, we should seek to avoid situations where our power is replaced by laws and contracts.

If contracts and agreements help us hold bosses to their promises, that's great. But if bargaining becomes an exercise in what rights we will give up, and deciding that bosses should in fact have total managerial control over our working lives, we're going about it the wrong way.