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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.

Alberta Sand and Gravel Haulers

These drivers came from similar groups of New Canadians as the Yellow Cab workers and had a similar organization. They seemed to rely on some legal avenues, used media / publicity more, and there is evidence they did some lobbying. Several years ago they had a series of job actions where they drove around in circles at the Alberta Legislature with their covers off, spraying dust and small particles of gravel everywhere. They were pretty effective at getting concessions and managed to actually engage in some concrete negotiations.

Advantages: Managed to be stable and long-term.

Disadvantages: Similar to Yellow Cab, there seemed to be no visible way of settling smaller disputes.

What happened? Near as I can tell, they are still around but militancy subsided when some concessions were granted. Often actions are tied to gas prices, so there is a sort of ongoing collective bargaining around rates.

Reynolds Diaz Contractors 

On three separate occasions, the contractors at Canada Post who worked under a subcontractor called Reynolds Diaz shut down the mail: Once in 2010 in retaliation for a pay cut; the pay cut was reversed. Once in support of rural contractors who were on strike over a pay cut; that pay cut was reversed. And once over a similar attempt at cutting pay; information on this one is spotty but it looked successful per second-hand reports.

Advantages : They have been very successful, and have existed for a very long time. They managed to build power through multiple actions and were arguably better at extending solidarity to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) union than CUPW was to them.

Disadvantages: Very informal and really high turnover; they seem to make up for it by relying for leadership on the cultural groups, outside of work, that make up the workforce. Also don’t have a clear process for settling smaller disputes.

What happened? Still in existence as of 2018.


Up and down the West Coast, owner-operators work the large ports. They frequently take job actions, sometimes idling thousands of trucks and tens of millions of dollars in merchandise. There is a lot of variety between the different ports and some are very active, like LA or Vancouver.

Advantages: Some coordination over a large geographic area, multiple ports, and two countries. Very strong economic leverage. Some coordination with other unions, such as UNIFOR in Vancouver. Very stable: has been in existence for a long time, probably decades, with job actions going back at least ten years.

Disadvantages: Vancouver has multiple unions with UNIFOR representing one group of workers — some evidence this may be part of an effort to “tier” the workforce. Los Angeles has a lot of internal politics and different groups putting forward different strategies at different times. There is the usual lack of a smaller-scale system for addressing concerns of smaller groups of workers or issues that aren’t large enough for a wildcat to solve but may be too big for an individual worker to sort out for themselves.

What happened? Still in existence as of 2018.

Bike Couriers

The Bike Courier campaigns of the early 2000s had a tremendous influence on the development of “Direct Unionism” or “Solidarity Unionism.” The key organizers in these campaigns had a huge impact on the IWW and played a central role in the transition from being mostly a radical labor history club to a small fighting union with a different program than the rest of the labor movement. The longest-running and most high-profile campaign was in Chicago, where the IWW maintained a presence in the courier industry for ten years. They had committees spanning multiple shops and won grievances against employers; they also mounted campaigns against building management companies to make buildings more accessible to the couriers that served their tenants.

There were also bike courier committees in Portland, New York, Boston and San Francisco, to name a few others.

Advantages: Extremely flexible organizations which took on issues on- and off the job. Well-developed conception of non-contractual unionism. Multiple campaigns in multiple shops in Chicago. Also very structured and formal organizations in Portland and Chicago, with clear meeting agendas, rules of order and elected officers.

Disadvantages: Never broke out of bike courier subculture in a meaningful way. Very oriented towards a largely young and urban counter-culture workforce.

What happened: Bike couriers in North America occasionally do actions or have short-lived campaigns under the IWW’s banner. In the United Kingdom, there is a very strong and vibrant campaign in this industry.

The Jimmy John’s Workers Union

The Jimmy John’s Workers Union started as an effort by the Twin Cities General Membership Branch of the IWW to organize in fast food. At its height, the campaign had shop committees in multiple shops and a city-wide committee. Ultimately, the campaign made a decision to go for an NLRB election and only failed by two votes; 85 in favor and 87 against. After that point the campaign went into steep decline but the organizers still managed to create an impressive track record of gains for themselves and their co-workers, including reversing decisions by management to fire people, addressing health and safety concerns for delivery drivers, forcing management to allow tips jars, securing a city-wide pay raise, and resolving scheduling issues, as well as addressing countless smaller individual grievances in their shops.

Advantages: Large numbers of workers mobilised. A city-wide organisation spanning at all ten shops in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota) at its height. Coordination through city-wide mass meetings. The media work on this campaign was impressive, including making the New York Times. Impressive gains before, during, and after the failed certification election.

Disadvantages: The campaign wasn’t just oriented towards a youth counter-culture; it celebrated that, and that was its basis. Substance abuse on the campaign was a major issue and led to key organizers putting their jobs at risk and getting injured unnecessarily. Logistically it was very lax, with campaign data mostly being kept in the personal notebooks of key organizers. Many organizers were also goal-oriented to the point of certification becoming an all-or-nothing proposition. The campaign slowly contracted as key people moved on to other projects after the certification campaign failed, despite efforts to downplay the legal process by some organizers. Additionally, the ability to join the JJWU campaign without joining the IWW also created a tiered membership that made it ambiguous as to who was actually a member and difficult to consolidate membership beyond just the shop. Ultimately, failed to bridge some of the demographic divides in the industry.

What happened? There is still an underground IWW presence in some shops across the USA. After the certification election, six key organizers were fired over a publicity stunt involving a fight for sick days and the NLRB process to get their jobs back ended years later without success in a conservative appellate court. Later on, there was also a brief attempt at organising in some stores in Baltimore that ultimately failed. The campaign was an impressive achievement for an all-volunteer union on a shoestring budget and is widely seen as a precursor to the Fight for $15 movement in fast food.

The Starbucks Workers Union

Where the Jimmy John’s Workers Union in the Twin Cities peaked at a failed certification election, the Starbucks Workers Union really got going after a failed attempt at certification. In 2003, Wobblies started organizing at a Starbucks in Manhattan. In 2004, they tried for a union certification election. The National Labor Relations Board defined their bargaining unit as every Starbucks in Manhattan, which meant it would have to include hundreds or thousands of workers — unfeasible for an organizing committee of only a handful of workers. So, the campaign chose to continue outside of the recognition framework. Eventually, the SWU ran campaigns in dozens of cities, going public in cities including Chicago, Quebec, Minneapolis and Dallas. Countless underground committees have pushed back against management to rack up impressive wins, such as changes to scheduling practices, enforcing the right to take bathroom breaks, winning a two-dollar-an-hour raise for all Starbucks workers in New York, and improvements to health and safety. Perhaps their greatest achievement was winning Martin Luther King Day as a paid day off in the USA for all Starbucks workers, many of whom are African American. The union has also won countless small victories overturning discipline and fighting against sexual harassment and discrimination at work. The union made national press several times and won several labor relations board rulings, cementing some legal recourse for unions that exist outside the contract and certification process.

Advantages: Extremely fluid organisation allowed for rapid expansion to other cities and shops without too much red tape. The campaign coordinated demands over multiple cities and countries. With a strong emphasis on direct action, the campaign repeatedly avoided certification elections since the initial defeat in New York and developed a strong practice of shop floor unionism.

Disadvantages: Like other IWW efforts in fast food, the campaign suffered from a high turnover in their workforce and all the problems that come from that. The campaign was logistically lax at some points but fairly strong at others. Part of their very fluid structure made creating consistent, democratic decision-making difficult. The campaign also had a tendency to go public with a small minority in the shop. Part of this was due to a reliance (probably an over-reliance) on media tactics. These strategic decisions put a tremendous amount of strain on key personalities and also created problems as far as giving credit to select people, creating a deficit of investment on the part of the less-high profile activists, and bringing constant scrutiny and attention from management. Also, when Quebec Wobblies joined the SWU from an already-existing union formation, things quickly fell apart due to differing emphases on direct action and a greater reliance on certification votes (which failed) in Canada. Ultimately the organizers quit en masse and called it a direct action.

What happened? The national campaign has folded, although there is some organizing in individual shops.

“Corridor Campaigns”

Montpelier Downtown Workers Union (MDWU)

Corridor campaigns were a popular model for IWW branches to experiment with in the early- to mid-2000s. They were based on having small committees in small shops spread out over a geographic area with a similar constellation of businesses, usually retail corridors.

The Montpelier campaign started under the sponsorship of a workers’ center run by the United Electrical (UE) workers’ union, an independent union with a history of communist leadership. One of the more innovative elements of this campaign was combination of a grievance committee with stewards assigned to a geographical area. Non-members were told of the presence of stewards in their area who would help them resolve their grievances on the job. The MDWU also had a grievance committee that would pool resources to tackle bigger problems.

Advantages: Had a clear way to address both smaller concerns and large-scale ones.

Disadvantages: Small shops prone to high turnover; going public in small shops allows the boss to charm neutrals and organize anti-union elements easily.

What happened? Eventually, the UE tried to push it to sign more contracts. As the campaign was failing they signed on with the IWW but it continued its decline and folded.

South Street Workers Union

South Street was a campaign in a retail corridor in Philadelphia started by the IWW branch there. It had committees in several small shops. They agitated around workplace issues as well as workers’ issues off the job, including transit fares.

Advantages: Maintained a functional organization between multiple small shops over a few years. Mobilized around workplace issues and mobilized the community around non-workplace demands as well.

Disadvantages: High turnover wore the campaign down.

What happened? The campaign lasted a number of years and built up the branch but eventually folded.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

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