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solidarity unionism

Green Unionism against Precarity

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, January 1, 2022

Editor's Note: all but one or two of the links in this article link to multiple articles, located on the IWW Environmental Union Caucus site, categorized by topic. Therefore, it is to the reader's interest to explore all of the articles brought forth by each link, at their convenience (and that body of information is ever evolving over time).

An edited version of this article appears in New Politics 72.

In a real sense, under capitalism, all workers are "precarious", meaning that they can be downsized, replaced, deskilled, outsourced, etc. It's simply a matter of degrees.

The ultimate peak in precarity is "gig work" (which has actually always existed; the names simply keep changing, but the concept is the same).

Unions represent a check against precarity, though this occurs on a graduated scale. The stronger the union, the less the workers' precarity.

Union strength manifests in various ways: it can result from a well organized, international, militant democratic union (ideal, but rare, with few real world examples, such as ILWU, and the IWW, of course), though more often than not it's a result of concentration of elite craft workers in skilled trades unions, which represents a strong guard against precarity, but only for workers in the union, in which case, solidarity is limited.

Other checks against precarity include high demand for skilled craft workers in rare supply, High demand for hard to replace workers (such as workers that required skilled credentials, such as teachers or transport workers), or tight labor markets (which exist in our semi-post COVID-19 world, due to a combination of factors spelled out in the Vox article).

This is nothing more than class struggle 101, as expertly phrased by Karl Marx, et. al.

There are new forms of precarity emerging due to climate catastrophe (brought on by capitalism). Workers find themselves facing new health and safety hazards and/or threats to their working environment.

Economic Update: The Challenge of Progressive Unionism

Breaking Things at Work: An Interview with Gavin Mueller

Gavin Mueller interviewed by Harry Holmes - Viewpoint Magazine, May 27, 2021

[Bright Green] Culture editor Harry Holmes interviews Gavin Mueller, author of the newly released Breaking Things at Work from Verso Books. Gavin Mueller is a lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint Magazine.

So first, for those who won’t have read it yet, can you tell us a bit about the book?

The book is essentially thinking about technology from the perspective of labour struggle. The left was in this accelerationist moment for a few years where there was an idea that technologies, particularly those tied to automation in the workplace, were leading to a ‘post-work’ or ‘post-capitalist’ future based on their own course of development. I was troubled by this discourse, which set me off on the research that led to this book.

From my perspective, and what I argue in the book, is that actually quite a lot of these technologies are not leading to a ‘post-work’ future. They are certainly not leading to a ‘post-capitalist’ future. Instead, they are actually weapons that make it difficult for workers to struggle, to establish autonomy at work, and to move the economy in a more egalitarian direction.

I wrote this book to show there is a different way of thinking about technology, one that I argue is more closely aligned to the political self-activity of workers. It also suggests that for those who care about more egalitarian futures we must start politicising technology and having a critical approach to it, rather than assuming it’s developing in a progressive way on its own.

In actually existing struggles both in our contemporary moment and in history, a critical perspective on technology has been there all along. This is why I start the story with the Luddites, who are famous, in quite a pejorative way, for opposing technology. I think there is quite a lot we can understand once we learn their history a little better and relate it to our present condition.

How much is this Luddite approach a strategic one about being able to be in solidarity with workers currently at the sharp end of technology’s impact, for example in an Amazon warehouse, or do you see it as part of a wider approach to technology in general? Is it an opposition to technology per se or a more qualified position based on current workplace struggles?

My political and intellectual influences are these ‘from below’ histories and thinking about struggle from that perspective, as well as being very alive to when there are tensions within the workers’ movement between rank-and-file struggles and the leadership, whether trade union, political party, or intellectual. It’s important to know this history because we have to learn from it.

So I think that’s where I always start, but politics is a sophisticated thing, I don’t think that all politics is oriented on the shop floor. We have to mediate to different levels, but I want to keep that kernel of struggle in our perspective.

We are seeing a lot of encouraging and exciting things. I don’t consider myself that old, but things that have never happened in my life before are happening – like lots of people identifying as socialist. We see these impressive electoral challenges, but they don’t quite ever get over the finish line. One reason for this is the base is still quite depoliticised and fragmented.

My idea of how you solve that problem is really to recognise the ways in which people are already engaged in struggle, particularly people in these incredibly exploited positions. There’s always resistance. But that resistance doesn’t always get amplified, it doesn’t always get connected or articulated with other forms of resistance. To me, that’s something that has been missing from these left-wing political challenges.

Maybe launching out a lot of policy proposals can be very exciting and interesting, but it doesn’t seem to quite do what we’ve hoped it would do. One reason for this is it still has this top-down perspective of ‘we are going to help you out.’ A lot of people don’t relate to that, they don’t believe in it, or they don’t hear those messages because I don’t think we’ve done the work of really building a base that will then get attached to policies and start actually informing policies. So that’s one reason I really orient the politics of the book in these struggles, because it is important to do at this moment.

My belief is we need to meet people where they are, which for most people is in the everyday struggles they have at work and in their wider life. Technology is a huge part of that, and often something many people already have already a critical approach to. They don’t like the way it is, they want things to be changed. They don’t want to hear a science fiction story about the robots allowing them to stay at home all day. I don’t think that will resonate. So that is a big motivation for the book. It’s an intellectual perspective I have, but I do think there is political value in it as well.

They killed themselves with greed: How a strike stopped privatization in DC’s Metro

By Ray Valentine - Organizing Work, December 29, 2019

Ray Valentine describes how a scheme to cut labor costs in the DC-area transit system through privatization backfired when workers at the private subcontractor went on strike.

On October 24, 120 bus operators, mechanics, and other workers represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 walked off the job at the Cinder Bed Road MetroBus garage in Lorton, Virginia, launching the first strike to hit the Washington, DC metro area’s mass transit system in more than 40 years. The strike was unplanned and small — small enough that it won’t show up in the federal government’s tally of work stoppages — and after more than two months, workers are still out with no settlement in sight. But even though the issues that provoked the dispute have not been resolved, the fight has led to major changes that have strengthened the position of workers throughout the transit system.

The buses out of Cinder Bed drive routes that are part of the Washington Metro system and the workers wear Metro uniforms, but the garage is operated by Transdev, a French multinational. The garage was outsourced as part of a long-term plan by Metro management to cut costs by contracting out as many services as possible in order to drive down labor costs. The strike began as a fairly straightforward economic conflict over wages and benefits, and the union’s ambitions going into it were modest. But on December 13, the union and Metro reached a deal that would halt further privatization and even bring some services that have already been outsourced back in-house. 

The result is a rare win for labor, but it’s not entirely clear how it happened, even to the people who won it.

Tough Times Organizing Street Canvassers

By Gavin McAllister - Organizing Work, December 5, 2019

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized the Seattle office of Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. (GCI) from July 2017 to August 2018. GCI is a company neck-deep in the “nonprofit industrial complex”: it is a fundraising company that contracts with nonprofit organizations to provide high-volume small donor funds. Their business model consists of selling canvassing shifts to organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and Doctors Without Borders. The worker’s job is to stand on a public street wearing the nonprofit’s uniform, flag down passersby, and try to convince them to donate to the nonprofit. GCI would then also collect the donor’s contact information and sell it to third party organizations, primarily the Democratic Party.

The union drive began when disgruntled workers approached the Seattle IWW General Membership Branch (GMB) in 2017. Through the course of the campaign, the union grew from a small committee to a wall-to-wall solidarity union. The drive ended on a difficult note when the employer closed the shop and fled the state in August 2018 to avoid having the union in the workplace. All 15 workers, including me, were laid off.

The campaign ultimately taught the Seattle IWW a few important lessons about the nuts and bolts of organizing in this type of workplace. We learned that it is absolutely possible to organize a fighting union at a small, high-turnover workplace. However, we underestimated how far the bosses would be willing to go to keep a union out, and we overestimated what the Labor Relations Board could do for us.

Progressives in the Streets, Union-busters in the Sheets

By Marianne Garneau - Organizing Work, November 22, 2019

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen multiple headlines about social justice advocacy groups and other progressive nonprofits resisting their workers’ attempts to organize. The tactics range from hiring anti-union law firms and holding “captive audience” staff meetings challenging the need for a union, to ruthless responses like mass layoffs.

Basically, we’re witnessing the same anti-union playbook that we’re used to in the corporate or for-profit sector, applied within organizations that claim to have a mandate to actively fight for good. These organizations will even tout their support for unions and partnerships with them, and yet having one in-house, representing their own workers, is apparently intolerable.

We’ve said before on this site that a boss is a boss is a boss. Managers want to control wages and workflow, and any pushback against that will unleash a power struggle. But it’s worth digging into the particular form this takes at nonprofits: why workers at these ostensibly progressive institutions feel the need to organize, and why they face so much resistance.

This isn’t just about calling out the hypocrisy of so-called progressives. It’s about preparing nonprofit sector workers, who are often young and idealistic and inexperienced at asserting their rights, for what they might face from these employers, and inoculating them against the bosses’ attempts to convince them they don’t need or deserve a union.

Workers go to work for these organizations thinking they can do good, and assuming they will be treated well by employers committed to social justice. But it turns out that good treatment for workers is not a matter of philosophical commitment to progressive political values, but a matter of how power is distributed in the workplace.

Concrete Examples of Non-Labor Board Organizing

By Nick Walter - Organizing Work, September 27, 2018

Nick Walter describes several examples of concessions-winning labor organizing that does not rely on the labor relations board model of filing for an election and bargaining a contract. The examples span transportation, logistics, food service and retail, in Canada and the U.S. The author is candid about both successes and failures.

Yellow Cab in Edmonton

Taxi drivers in Edmonton, largely an immigrant workforce, had an association for a number of years that would make demands on the City of Edmonton, various hotels, and their own company. They would back up these demands with direct action. Their main tactic was car pickets. They would circle around a hotel where there was a grievance, or City Hall. In at least one instance, they blocked the on-ramp to the airport.

Advantages: They had a very high level of member engagement and a capacity to take action that could achieve some pretty big wins and take on large institutions.

Disadvantages: They didn’t seem to have a method for clearing out small grievances: little issues that didn’t require hundreds of cars in an auto picket.

What happened? They were eventually certified under the Teamsters, who made some big promises. The Teamsters failed to get a first contract and called a strike. The strike collapsed because a number of cabbies scabbed and didn’t honor it. This was in stark contrast to the auto pickets, which had had a high level of participation and almost no scabbing. Many workers were afraid of losing pay or felt they couldn’t afford the Teamsters’ full-on strike. Some of this is probably bad or sloppy organising on the part of the Teamsters. But also, unlike the Teamsters, the advantage of the old association was they could also engage in job action while at work without being threatened with Alberta Labour Relations Board fines for not having followed the legal process for a strike authorization. This let them collect fares and take action in the same day. Ultimately, the Teamsters failed to secure a contract and Yellow Cab promptly decertified.

Here’s How a Supreme Court Decision To Gut Public Sector Unions Could Backfire on the Right

By Shaun Richman - In These Times, February 8, 2017

Janus v. AFSCME, which begins oral arguments on February 26, is the culmination of a years-long right-wing plot to financially devastate public-sector unions. And a Supreme Court ruling against AFSCME would indeed have that effect, by banning public-sector unions from collecting mandatory fees from the workers they are compelled to represent. But if the Court embraces the weaponization of free speech as a cudgel to beat up on unions, the possibility of other, unintended consequences is beginning to excite some union advocates and stir fear among conservative constitutional scholars.

The ruling could both wildly increase workers’ bargaining power and clog the lower courts with First Amendment challenges to routine uses of taxpayer money. At a minimum, it has the potential to turn every public sector workplace dispute into a constitutional controversy—and one Midwest local is already laying plans to maximize the chaos this could cause.

“There’s No Trick”

By Jamie McCallum - Jacobin, January 22, 2018

“We are worried, but we are ready to fight,” says Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). “We are more ready than ever, actually.”

With 110,000 members, the MTA is the largest union in the state, a status that could soon change once the Supreme Court hands down its anticipated ruling against unions in Janus v. AFSCME [the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees]. That decision would allow public-sector workers — some of whom are currently mandated to pay “fair share” fees if they opt out of full-fledged union membership — to receive union representation and benefits without paying anything. This would expand right-to-work conditions to the entire public sector in the United States, a crisis even for a movement that is accustomed to crises. Say the word “Janus” to union organizers and they say things like “devastating,” “catastrophic,” “cataclysmic,” and “fucked.” And “organize.”

Two years ago, unions escaped with a victory in a similar case, Friederichs v. California Teachers Association, only because the timely death of Justice Antonin Scalia resulted in a 4-4 decision. But no one is counting on a favorable court ruling this time around; hence, a call to arms.

New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism (Ness)

By Henry Laws - LibCom.Org, January 19, 2018

This is the first book to compile workers’ struggles on a global basis, examining the formation and expansion of radical unions in the Global South and Global North.

Bureaucratic labor unions are under assault. Most unions have surrendered the achievements of the mid-twentieth century, when the working class was a militant force for change throughout the world. Now trade unions seem incapable of defending, let alone advancing, workers’ interests.

As unions implode and weaken, workers are independently forming their own unions, drawing on the tradition of syndicalism and autonomism—a resurgence of self-directed action that augurs a new period of class struggle throughout the world. In Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe, workers are rejecting leaders and forming authentic class-struggle unions rooted in sabotage, direct action, and striking to achieve concrete gains.

The tangible evidence marshaled in this book serves as a handbook for understanding the formidable obstacles and concrete opportunities for workers challenging neoliberal capitalism, even as the unions of the old decline and disappear.

Read the report (PDF).

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