notes re: “Who’s In Charge Here?” recomp piece

I was gonna do something else, and then saw this post on recomp from a FW I know. I have some criticisms of the piece, but I like a lot of the piece and the deal about legitimacy is thought-provoking. Some very sloppy notes…

About legitimacy…. The piece starts with a story about the Jimmy John’s election, here’s a highlight:

“They’re doing a recount to be sure, the margins were so close,” someone whispered to me as I approached the crowded former restaurant again, but it was clear by the tears of the faces of my friends that the union had lost. “Two lousy votes,” DB, an inshopper in a downtown store

Te election highlighted a problem which is dealt with in a form by the “minority unionism” stuff that’s been around for awhile, namely the riskiness of pinning the union’s legitimacy on a majoritarian vote in a single “bargaining unit.” NLRB elections do several things:
– they frame the issue how capitalists want it framed, namely, “workers at this one bad company had reformable grievances, so they filed for an election and now they have a voice at the table” … to break it down further, (a) the problem is with extreme circumstances at this one company, inevitably retorted by “we pay a competitive wage!! be happy!!”; (b) the goal is reform and a “voice at the table,” not the pursuance of class conflict; (c) grievances are framed in strictly reformist/reformable terms, and a union drive as one way to resolve those grievances and get back to work
– minoritarian actions and organization are implicitly de-legitimized
– “outside” solidarity and class-wide solidarity is discouraged/de-legitimized and “inside” company-centric forms of unionism are encouraged
– the whole process encourages labor legalism, grievances framed as “this company broke the law! something has to be done!” and avoidance of activities which would potentially incriminate the union and de-legitimize its legal pursuits
– government sponsorship, “good faith bargaining” etc. …

The Jimmy John’s drive perfectly demonstrated a bunch, maybe all of these issues. The inside-vs.-outside thing was and still is a problem in the union, a huge impediment to industrial organization and an incentive to IWW-third-party-ism (IWW provides the legal help, while “Jimmy John’s Workers Union” is the “direct” organization). I find this hugely frustrating, and equally frustrating is how many really smart, militant, class conscious folks fall into this trap. All this leads to the flipside issue of “militant company unionism”: company brand-name campaigns (or rather blank-company-workers unions) in which workers may be militant when it comes to in-shop actions, but are hostile to “outside” actions (like blockades, boycotts, etc.) and sometimes even seem to identify with the employer as much or more than the union (note – definitely found this in some conversations with non-wobblies who were JJWUrkers).

A related issue which the article makes really good points on is how “politics” affects legitimacy, specially the union’s politics…

we sometimes narrowly define the union’s end goal in terms of a “fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” but with red flags. By that I mean that we fear what our coworkers might think about the full implications of telling them that we want to control all the power at work, because of a long-standing belief amongst leftists that anti-capitalism is alien to working class consciousness, but yet we organize in a union that is formally opposed to capitalism. This false or incomplete version of our vision can make us seem illegitimate. Our ideas may not seem clear or worked out to our co-workers, whereas the bosses’ ideology is already experienced every day on the job.

This fear of bringing in “the politics” often gets expressed as the idea, “I don’t want to scare my coworkers.” It doesn’t help that a lot of us who are comfortable with this vision developed that comfort in relatively small and insular circles of radicals, and picked up the habit of expressing this vision using specialist jargon that is hard to understand for non-specialists.

The “Ten Point Plan” thing…

it was clear to organizers that running another election campaign was not on the immediate agenda. Instead, they pushed for the “Ten Point Plan for Justice at Jimmy John’s,” a serious list of demands developed through a survey of the workers at the franchise that the union had conducted in the period after the election to keep energy going. The Ten Point Plan was an effective answer to the question posed by workers to union organizers: “What does the union want?” For the next several months, the union would organize for elements of the Ten Point Plan, pushing particularly around the lack of a reasonable sick day policy at the company.

Both the NLRB election and the Ten Point Plan raised questions of who is able to speak authoritatively about work and of who is allowed to make political decisions about the workplace. The election and the Ten Point Plan are two different attempts to answer the question “What does the union want?” and also the question “Who has the power to decide how we are treated?” I call these questions of legitimacy.

I sort-of-ish disagree, in a complicated way…. I felt then, and still feel, the “Ten Point Plan for Justice” was purely reformist. The concept points straight to reformist AFL-CIO and SEIU initiatives like “Janitors for Justice” “Jobs with Justice” etc. and reminds a lot too of UFW boycott campaigns (which I used to regularly follow, years ago) … the non-contractual/semi-contractual strategy of waging a publicity campaign around a few bullet point demands, which if implemented will lead to “justice” i.e. reformed capitalism (hardly a a wobbly’s idea of “justice” but good enough for a corporatist union like SEIU…). I’m less into this than business union contracts, because at least contracts expire regularly and leave more room for “more and more and more” (old AFL slogan), if still capitalistic. And I’ve yet to be impressed by the political utility of the “blank-whatever for justice” rhetorical device, which has had minimal organizational dividends that I’m aware of.

The Ten Point Plan was not framed as an agreement with management but a demand upon management by the workers collectively. It opened a space where the union could assert that it wanted a piece of the pie without saying exactly how much it wanted and implying quite openly that it could demand more if it wanted to.

I don’t what this is based on, a ten point plan is pretty specific and certainly no more, if not arguably less, indicative that the union “could demand more if wanted to” than a standard union contract.

Workers were fighting for “fairness” but they were not willing to say exactly where “fairness” ended and “control” began.

I don’t think this is starkly different from how contractual organizing drives have often been framed or perceived… Glaberman makes a good case for this in “Punching Out” despite harshly criticizing contracts.

This intensity was compounded by a series of direct actions taken by workers in the aftermath of the election around the sick day policy, upping the pressure on management to the point where it blatantly illegally fired six lead organizers and effectively killed much of the momentum of the original campaign.

I’m confused by the phrasing here (“compounded”) but, if the argument here is that the “Ten Point Plan” as an object is what made for this intensity (not sure if that’s the argument, again it’s kinda confusing wording), I don’t buy it. The sick days thing could do just as easily without the Ten Point Plan, frankly I don’t even remember what the other points were and they were never a major reference or discussion point after the firings happened. Sick days was one issue that struck a chord which the union pursued, and did a provocative action around (the sick day posters) which led the company to counterattack by firing half a dozen wobblies, in a bid to break the union. The union’s response (a total failure, side note) was to treat the firings as an escalation of the sick days fight and keep the actions centered on the “positive fight for sick days”… which led to painfully slow, tame action campaign which quickly burned out when the reality hit folks that except for ULPs, all the actions we habitually use were not strong enough to win either sick days or reinstatement.

This leads to something I’ll get to in a different post some other time, which is fear, and how it determines much of what happens in labor conflict… all this affects the issue of legitimacy. As pointed out in the article: “Workers are not stupid, we want to align with winning faction in a dispute, because there are serious costs to losing and people know that. Talking about standing up to the boss is terrifying to people and as organizers we help our coworkers by talking about their fears and talking them through them.” While legitimacy is important, is some ways I would conclude from the Jimmy John’s case that it was really an afterthought compared to the basic animal instincts of fear and self-preservation (in the context of economic survival) – instincts which in other times and places have fueled or even directly caused union drives and militant workplace actions. And frequently these instincts shape what workers (especially “uneducated” workers, whatever their politics) view as being legitimate or illegitimate.

Another issue raised in the article, very important and interesting, which hits at a weakness in a lot of the anti-contractual stuff that I’ve seen, is this:

radical labor activists, have argued that while that may be true on a formal, legal level, in reality workers have a good deal to say about how work gets done through informal organizing. There’s a level at which we acknowledge that the boss makes all the decisions about how to do work, but there is another level in which we informally organize ourselves to make work less miserable: divide tasks up differently, rotate responsibilities, goof off, do just enough work to get not get disciplined, etc.

While these informal practices are important and are often seized upon by good organizers as ways of explaining to our coworkers the ways in which we already have some autonomy at work, they exist below the radar. We may not realize that they are happening or consciously note that they happen. That is to say, they are real but not political. We engage in these practices unintentionally and while they make work better, they do not fundamentally challenge the fact that at the end of the day, it is the boss who calls all the shots.

The article doesn’t spell this out, but a historical source of much disagreement and conflicting priorities in “the” labor movement, has been the issue of pursuing “pure and simple” economic goals, or pursuing some form of “industrial democracy” or similar such social reform agendas (metaphorically, prioritizing a “bigger piece of the pie” vs. a “seat at the table” and the respective sacrifices each entails to the other), which in turn is split between different reformist factions (some more leftist, some more conservative) and self-labeled revolutionary factions. This is a huge topic I won’t get into detail on, but how it specifically touches on this article, is that sometimes “revolutionary” stuff gets watered down into basically reformist stuff being pursued by revolutionaries, “workplace control” being a prime sample of this trend. A lot of wobbly literature, and wobbly-recommended literature (like Glaberman) I’ve read, actively de-emphasizes economic goals (and accuses “the business unions” of only pursuing those – which is probably a good definition of business unionism, and in that sense is true, but also would make the old CIO and bunch of the larger AFL-CIO unions, and now SEIU, etc., by definition non-business unions, but rather social reformist unions of different stripes, in particular corporatist unions) and makes a big deal out of “workplace control” – and highlights small anecdotal examples of workers asserting autonomy on the job in various small ways, to show how this is what workers really want. A byproduct of this is seeing the IWW’s inability to win material gains as not a big deal, by under-valuing materialist goals and over-valuing what I call “small-time” union pursuits which have little or no economic impact on the lives of most workers.

Anyway, that’s a bit tangential, but… back to the thing about politics, I think the article makes a good point that we need to be way better about pushing our ideological mission and directly linking this to our organizing work, which gets back to the thing about third-party-ism and brand-name unionism vs. industrial organizing. And it speaks to the issue of how we pursue legitimacy (by filing elections? by pleading for justice? or by claiming power! – a bit childishly phrased, but…) which also relates to thing about fear, because fear is all about power and who calls the shots. All this to me points to points to a need for more militancy, avoidance of legal pursuits (like ULPs, legally-sponsored collective bargaining, etc.), and for pursuing industrial organizing drives which prioritize bargaining power (whether in the form of job control, economic leverage, etc.) and getting away from brand-name “campaigns for justice at [insert company].”


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