Lasting Lessons from the Class Struggle
by M. Jones and MK
“To build the new society you need new people and people can be transformed only in activity.” - Martin Glaberman, Work and Working Class Consciousness.
March 20th, 2004. Over the course of a year a group of UPS loaders had developed a lot of comradery with one another. They had the power, and they openly expressed it by refusing to work at the speed demanded by the bosses. A new worker was brought in and management tried its best to isolate him from the activist group. When this fellow worker defied management and lined up with the rest of the workers, working at their pace, calling management “blue shirts” and spending his breaks with other militant workers, management brought even more pressure on him, pushing him to change and work faster or he would be fired. His coworkers responded after a break one morning by refusing to go back to work until a certain blue shirt, the one mostly responsible for the pressure brought on the new worker,was taken off of the line. It was a stand-off, and the tension was high, none of them having been involved in anything like this before. They won their demand, the supervisor was taken off the line, and they were threatened with firings if they tried anything like that again. Over the course of the next year they all began to leave the job, moving to other work, other shifts at UPS, or to other departments.
Roughly a year and a half after the action had taken place, two friends from the UPS job visit for the first time in awhile. Chatting over a beer, one had quit UPS but the other still worked there. He relayed how he would bring the story up whenever he saw their old despised manager, how that blue shirt's face would turn red and he would storm off. Nostalgic for the old crew and their bold action at work, the worker who had since moved on called another former coworker. He too expressed pride in their defiance of the boss and added that he looked forward to the next time he could stick it to management to show 'em who was really in charge. Though the gains were long gone, the memory and experience still lingered, with the workers holding onto a desire to take action next time they have the strength.
May 17th, 2006. Messengers from Arrow Messenger Service in Chicago gather for a special anniversary party at a fellow worker's home. Exactly one year ago, on a busy Thursday afternoon, they all had turned off their two-way radios messengers use to communicate to their dispatcher. Having been through three fruitless negotiating sessions with the company, this was their way of showing Arrow that if the bosses wouldn't meet their terms, the company wouldn't run. After a pitched battle during the ensuing month, the company agreed to the workers' demands.
As they gather at the anniversary party, make little drunken speeches and reminisce over last years drawn-out struggle, only three or four of them – out of twenty – still work at the company. Several were fired during the campaign, others quit in frustration, and others just decided to move on. There is virtually no organization left at the company and no existing struggle against the boss to speak of. In another year the union will be completely gone from Arrow and what will become of the gains made in Winter 2005 is anyone's guess.
But one thing is clear, no one there would have changed a thing. For some it was the greatest experience at work they had ever been a part of. There is consensus that the whole thing was nothing less than life-changing. Crappy work is no longer something that must only be endured. It can be collectively resisted.
At first glance one can look at these shopfloor skirmishes and see defeat. Gains were eroded, and no lasting organization was ever built. But through struggle we produce more than better or worse working conditions, resolved or unresolved grievances, and union or no union. We produce new kinds of people. A major part of our organizing has to be a change in consciousness. This is why our tactics are so important. This type of change in outlook isn't facilitated as clearly through an NLRB election campaign. Direct action, where workers themselves are making the change, gives the feeling of power to us workers. Most members of our class have not felt this power, but once it has been summoned up it is much harder to push down.
When we workers act as a group we are making a statement to each fellow worker involved. This statement is clear, I am willing to stand here with your if you are here to stand with me. We may win this fight, or we may lose, but that statement always stays with us. It resonates with us as we go through our lives. When we organize and when we take action that effectively challenges our boss, we have the power to demand the changes we want to see. This is the key to understanding why these types of actions change our lives. In the UPS story, workers stood up, put themselves on the line for another worker. In the Arrow story, workers took action to strengthen their position and to make a clear point: we are united and without US you do not have a company. When we put ourselves on the line for one another, no one forgets what is possible afterward.
The concept of producing organizers at one company who scatter out to others companies has become a maxim for some IWW organizers in industry-wide efforts, and the concept is a good one, but there's something more to it. Not everyone is going to become an organizer but everyone is going to have do assess the fight they've just been through and draw conclusions for their own lives. When the dust settles from our action, as it inevitably does, we are left to consider what happened. We have seen the power we have as workers, a power unknown before. It may not occur to us immediately, but with any major change in our lives, there is a resonance - a white noise that does not go away. It could be a month later and we could be at the same job, or a year later and we could be two jobs down the road, but we will remember. And when we have the chance, we line up with, or maybe even lead, an effort to organize and take a stand against the boss. This time we do it with less hesitation than before, maybe with more foresight and with more vigor, because now we know exactly what it means.
The bottom line is this: our organizing needs to have as its byproduct a new increase in workers' willingness to resist - an increase in our propensity to act on our urges to resist the bosses - even if the resistance is individual. This is the revolutionary outcome. This will lay the groundwork for future organizing, in this industry or others. To “organize the worker not the job” as we say in this union, is to gradually create new kinds of people, people who are most likely to never again roll over and take the shit the boss throws at them.
The Missoula Floods were enormous landscape-changing events during the last ice age, some of which discharged 2.6 billion gallons of water every second, but they were only possible due to sudden small ruptures of the ice dam on the Clark Ford River. Small ruptures led to larger ruptures, they built off each other weakening the dam. In the IWW, our workplace committees, our campaigns, and our fights with the boss have ruptured production, only to have seen companies rebound and get back to business. But the true ruptures are the changed individuals that come out the other end of these fights. One day our years of struggles will turn these ruptures into a revolutionary flood that will forever change the landscape of the world's economy.