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Sabotage in the American workplace: anecdotes of dissatisfaction, mischief and revenge

Originally posted at LibCom.Org, July 21, 2017

A truly fantastic study of everyday employee resistance at work. First person accounts of sabotage, beautifully illustrated and intermingled with related news clippings, facts and quotes. Note that "Mail Handler Judi" is, in fact, Judi Bari 9as confirmed elsewhere).

Capitalist Saboteurs

By R. H. Lossin - Jacobin, September 1, 2016

This April, a natural gas pipeline exploded in Salem Township, Pennsylvania, shooting flames well above the tree line and producing enough heat to send a man to the hospital with third-degree burns. Such explosions, if uncommon, aren’t rare: according to ProPublica, they’ve killed five hundred people and injured four thousand more in the past thirty years.

When infrastructure fails in such a dramatic fashion, it is usually considered an accident. In the rare instances in which events like pipeline explosions are addressed as structural failures, it is only in the most literal sense of the word “structural,” prompting demands for repairs, regulation, and safety measures. But calls for oversight and technological fixes only reassert the accidental nature of what is in fact a problem of class society.

Pipeline explosions are a perfect example of what the late nineteenth-century French syndicalist Emile Pouget called “capitalist sabotage”: the regular and systematized damage done by capitalists to industry, commerce, workers, and consumers in the service of profit.

This is quite different from the sabotage periodically carried out by workers. For workers, Pouget explains, sabotage is “aimed only at the means of exploitation against the machines and the tools, that is against inert, painless and lifeless things.” Capitalist sabotage — “the very life essence of modern society” — “reaps human victims and deprives men of their health by sticking a leech at the very sources of life.”

Capitalists, of course, are well aware of the difference. The energy industry is again instructive. The initial investment in pipeline infrastructure was not necessarily a safety measure — it was a self-conscious assertion of class power.

Pipelines allow oil to flow across vast distances without human labor, wresting control from workers who would otherwise control crucial checkpoints in its distribution network. They decrease workers’ ability to, as Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn put it, “consciously withdraw their efficiency” — in other words, sabotage the operation.

Mistaken Identity: the Tortured History of Sabotage, Part 1

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, March 3, 2016

The IWW has long been associated, for better or worse, with the tactic of "sabotage", so much so that it has become an essential part of the Wobbly lexicon (even though the tactic predates the IWW by at least a century). As I have detailed elsewhere1, the radical environmental movement, initiated principally, though not exclusively, by Earth First!, beginning in the very late 1970s in the United States, drew much cultural inspiration from the One Big Union (and to a much lesser degree, some of its economic critique of capitalism). One of the most celebrated such "borrowings" was the strategy of direct action.

A classic IWW slogan, which appeared on many of the IWW's literature and imagery, reads "direct action gets the goods". The black cat or the wooden shoe (otherwise known as a "sabot"), often associated with the IWW, symbolizes "sabotage," and these same symbols and slogans would later appear in Earth First! literature and iconography.

Earth First! cofounder, Dave Foreman popularized "monkeywrenching" (sometimes also called "ecofefense"), a series or class of tactics involving small bands of anonymous guerillas entering into wilderness areas slated to be developed or have their resources extracted and vandalized the equipment that was to be used in the process or set traps that would hamper the same equipment from smooth and timely operations. This has often been called sabotage (or sometimes ecotage).

However, sabotage and monkeywrenching are not the same thing. In fact, many who practice, or at least preach, using the latter do not understand the difference, and economic conditions which led to the adoption of the former by workers. Indeed, may of them don't understand sabotage at all, and that's no coincidence. What most people have heard or read about the IWW and "sabotage" is fairly inaccurate, and most accounts are more romantic fiction than historical fact.

Chapter 14 - Sabotage a War Measure

I have not given you are rigidly defined thesis on sabotage because sabotage is in the process of making. Sabotage itself is not clearly defined. Sabotage is as broad and changing as industry, as flexible as the imagination and passions of humanity. Every day workingmen and women are discovering new forms of sabotage, and the stronger their rebellious imagination is the more sabotage they are going to invent, the more sabotage they are going to develop. Sabotage is not, however, a permanent weapon. Sabotage is not going to be necessary, once a free society has been established.

Chapter 13 - Limiting The Over-Supply of Slaves

It is my hope that the workers will not only "sabotage" the supply of products, but also the over-supply of producers. In Europe the syndicalists have carried on a propaganda that we are too cowardly to carry on in the United States as yet. It is against the law. Everything is "against the law," once it becomes large enough for the law to take cognizance that it is in the best interests of the working class. If sabotage is to be thrown aside because it is construed as against the law, how do we know that next year free speech may not have to be thrown aside? Or free assembly or free press?

Chapter 12 - Sabotage and "Moral Fiber"

Sabotage is objected to on the ground that it destroys the moral fiber of the individual, whatever that is! The moral fibre of the workingman! Here is a poor workingman, works twelve hours a day seven days a week for two dollars a day in the steel mills of Pittsburg. For that man to use sabotage is going to destroy his moral fiber. Well, if it does, then moral fiber is the only thing he has left.

Chapter 11 - "Used Sabotage, But Didn't Know What You Called It"

Sabotage is for the workingman an absolute necessity. Therefore it is almost useless to argue about its effectiveness. When men do a thing instinctively continually, year after year and generation after generation, it means that that weapon has some value to them. When the Boyd speech was made in Paterson, immediately some of the socialists rushed to the newspapers to protest. They called the attention of the authorities to the fact that the speech was made. The secretary of the socialist party and the organizer of the socialist party repudiated Boyd.

Chapter 10 - "Print The Truth or You Don't Print at All"

Now, what is true of the railroad workers is also true of the newspaper workers. Of course one can hardly imagine any more conservative element to deal with than the railroad workers and the newspaper workers.

Chapter 9 - Putting The Machine on Strike

Suppose that when the engineer had gone on strike he had taken a vital part of the engine on strike with him, without which it would have been impossible for anyone to run that engine. Then there might have been a different story. Railroad men have a mighty power in refusing to transport soldiers, strike-breakers and ammunition for soldiers and strike-breakers into strike districts. They did it in Italy. The soldiers went on the train. The train guards refused to run the trains. The soldiers thought they could run the train themselves.

Chapter 8 - Following The "Book of Rules"

Interfering with service may be done in another way. It may be done, strange to say, sometimes by abiding by the rules, living up to the law absolutely. Sometimes the law is almost as inconvenient a thing for the capitalist as for a labor agitator. For instance, on every railroad they have a book of rules, a nice little book that they give to every employee, and in that book of rules it tells how the engineer and the fireman must examine every part of the engine before they take it out of the round house.