A Wobbly strategy for fundamental change
A Wobbly strategy for fundamental change by Staughton Lynd
STAUGHTON LYND has been a scholar-activist all his adult life. The director of the Freedom Schools in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, he also is the author of a number of books, including Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. Here is an excerpt from his speech he gave at the IWW General Assembly in Ottawa.
The Preamble declares: "We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry... Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers."
In 1905, these words referred to craft unions in the American Federation of Labor. In any given workplace, if unions existed at all there were likely to be a number of them, one for each craft, each with its own contract with the employer. These contracts would have different expiration dates. Hence the existing craft unions functioned to make it impossible for all the workers in an industry to "cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof." The American Federation of Labor was an American separation of labor, Wobblies insisted. The craft unions took from the hands of workers their one great power of common action, preventing workers from "making an injury to one an injury to all."
Industrial unionism, it seemed, might be the answer. One of the few industrial unions in the old AF of L was the United Mine Workers. The IWW presented itself as "one big union" potentially bigger and more inclusive than the UMW, and miners often became members. According to the late Michael Kozura, an IWW member and a labor historian, in the anthracite mine fields of eastern Pennsylvania from 1906 to 1916 there were as many members of the IWW as of the UMW. Anthracite miners, Kozura writes, relied on wildcat strikes and other forms of direct action, refused on principle to submit grievances to arbitration, tenaciously resisted the contractual regulation of their labor, opposed union dues check-off, habitually rebelled against the UMW's dictatorial leadership, and sustained this militant syndicalism into the late 1940s.
Away from the mines, industrial unions had to be created from scratch. Understandably, Wobblies and former Wobblies threw themselves into building local industrial unions in the 1930s. Len DeCaux wrote of his fellow CIO militants that "when the CIO lefts let down their hair, it seemed that only the youngest had no background of Wobbly associations." ... Even when flesh-and-blood Wobblies were not present, local industrial unions in what became the CIO often exhibited a Wobbly style of organizing. The Westinghouse plant east of Pittsburgh is one instance. Just before World War I, Westing-house workers created an in-plant organization made up of their own elected delegates which cut across traditional craft lines. This organization, in the words of labor historian David Montgomery, "copied the IWW by devoting itself to struggles around demands, rather than negotiating contracts." More than twenty years later, when the CIO established itself in the plant, bargaining was at first carried on in the same Wobbly manner.
"[M]anagers would meet with the leaders of UE Local 601 to negotiate about such issues as hours of work or layoff policy, ... There were no contracts; all agreements could be abrogated by either party at any time; and grievances were settled quickly according to the strength of the workers on the floor of the plant."
Many CIO locals, not just in anthracite mining and electrical work but in the core industries of rubber, auto and steel, initially opposed written contracts and the dues check-off. I had the privilege of knowing John Sargent, first president of the 18,OOO-member local union at Inland Steel in northwestern Indiana. I heard him give a speech in which he recalled: "Without a contract we secured for ourselves agreements on working conditions and wages that we do not have today. ... If their wages were low there was no contract to prohibit them from striking, and they struck for better wages. If their conditions were bad, ... if they were being abused, the people in the mills themselves ... would shut down a department or even a group of departments to secure for themselves the things they found necessary."
The Wobbly practices so widespread in the locals of the early CIO were snuffed out from above. Wobblyism was done in, not only by employers, but also by trade union bureaucrats like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther, and by government bureaucrats, arbitrators and judges. In place of a praxis of direct action created from below, there came into being what historian David Brody calls "workplace contractualism," labor- management relationships governed by collectively bargained contracts. No matter how short, these contracts almost always contained a no-strike clause. After World War II a second clause became equally universal: the management prerogatives clause that gave the employer the right unilaterally to close the plant. Within a very few years, the new CIO unions recreated the obstacles to collective direct action that Wobblies had criticized in the old AF of L.
Nothing in the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act) of 1935 required CIO unions to put a no-strike clause in their contracts. Trotskyist organizer Farrell Dobbs showed that over-the-road truckers could organize successfully despite the fact that their first contracts did not give up the right to strike. The establishment of workplace contractualism, with the inclusion of no-strike and management prerogatives language in all but a few CIO contracts, was substantially complete before the passage of the Taft-Hartley amendments in 1947 and the expulsion of leftist unions from the CIO soon afterwards.
The plain fact is that Lewis, Reuther and most of the other CIO founding fathers deliberately and voluntarily chose to include no-strike language in their contracts. They appear to have done so for two reasons: first, to show employers that they were "responsible" labor leaders who would help to maintain labor peace; and second, to control their own rank-and-file members. More...
And in fact, in the moments of revolution or near-revolution during the past century and a half we find that poor and working people did not conduct the struggle through organizations already in existence when the crisis began. Rather they acted through new institutions, created for the purpose at hand. Typically, these new institutions brought together all the workers of a given locality and addressed the common interests, the class interests, of all workers in that community. Often such bodies originated as committees to administer local general strikes. Typically, as the crisis deepened, the committee would turn to positive tasks such as maintaining public safety, ensuring that essential medical services remained available, guaranteeing a supply of basic foods, and so on. Built from below, gradually taking on responsibility for the whole range of human needs, the network of new organizations became a dual power confronting the existing structure of government.
I have believed for a long time that the large scale fundamental change we need to see (and will see) in the workplace and in workers' organizations will come about through new and evolving organizations. The existing orgs are part of the system that needs to be changed. It's the interaction among workers that is beginning through the Internet (and other means of communication) that will lead to the emergence of these new organizations. We saw it in Seattle and Quebec and other places where people were drawn together quickly by mutual concerns and interests and the unexpected happened. We'll see more of it as more of us become accustomed to the new tools at our disposal and the opportunities we can create by using them to our advantage.
Great article. I'm a big fan of Lynd. He's been saying a lot of the things that many of us are now saying for years.
Some of these folks came up to Vancouver and put on a bike messenger organizing workshop for local messengers...now they need a little help with their not-so-friendly employer...
In response to increasing harrassment of union supporters, the messengers at Transerv Systems, Inc. in Portland went out on strike today!
After two years of IWW and no end in sight, Transerv management has turned up the heat. The pro-union bike messengers have all received disciplinary write-ups and their 'final warning before termination' for miniscule or never-before-enforced rules. Even the temp-workers hired to break the union have experienced the bosses' wrath with one woman being fired after all sided with the regular employees and wore IU 540 union patches. The trouble culminated Tuesday night with the firing of the bike dispatcher for allegedly violating a new rule that even managers can't seem to follow.
Feeling as though the firing was yet another attack and that all of their jobs were in danger, both regular messengers and temp replacements decided to strike until management agreed to:
-Reinstate the dispatcher
-Clear out disciplinary files
-Give temps hired to bust the union full employment
-Establish a grievance procedure with just cause
-Allow dispatch full discretion in assigning work (A recent change is that management must okay the assignments and will not allow messengers to perform better paying work)
Picket lines went up in front of Transerv at 12:00pm today and will continue until further notice. Visits are also being made to Transerv's clents, updating them on the workers' situation and asking that they make phone calls and write letters demanding the company treat its workers fairly and resolve the points of contention.
All fellow workers are invited to contact Transerv to relate support for the striking messengers and their demands. (They have a remarkably convenient toll-free number)
Transerv Systems, Inc.
310 SW 4th Ave
Portland, OR 97204
Gassen Gutierrez, Vice President ext 218
Steve Chasteen, President ext 213
These aren't the friendliest of folks, but maybe you can help them understand.
Portland IUB 540 can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at our union hall 503-231-5488
Letters of support can be sent to:
Portland IUB 540
616 E Burnside St.
Portland, OR 97214
Feeling as though the firing was yet another attack and that all of their jobs were in danger, both regular messengers and temp replacements decided to strike
You gotta love it! Temp workers used as a management tool to bust the union which turns into SOLIDARITY between all the workers! Too Cool!
Great info Blackcat!
After months of harrasment, threats, write-ups, to union messengers by management, workers at Transerv could take no more when management fired the long term and union friendly bike dispatcher, Doug. Workers have organized an unrecognized union with the Industrial Workers of the World, Municipal Transport Workers, and have been attempting negotiations with management for two years now.
Oct 17, at 12:00pm, 9 of the 10 bike messengers of Transerv Systems in Portland assembled outside their base, marched inside, and handed in their pagers and radios. They informed management they were striking, demanding that management reinstate Doug, clear out disciplinary files, give temps hired to bust the union full employment, establish a grievance procedure with just cause, and allow dispatch full discretion in doling out work. Workers had presented these demands in a proposal to management in which workers would withdraw all outstanding Unfair Labor Practice charges in the company and assure a smoother ride for everyone. The two workers who were elected to bring this proposal to management were written up by management the same night as a response.
During Wednesday's strike, Vice President Gassen Guiterriez began standing outside cursing and grabbing his balls at us. By midday, he was standing in the middle of the street, a map in his hand, brand new timbuktu bag on his back, radio on his chest, looking up at the sky in confusion. Drivers at the company continued to work all day but by all appearances a messenger company can't work without messengers. Word came out that companies all over the city were recieving calls from Transerv clients needing to get work done. Workers and supporters maintained a strong presence outside the company all day, and will continue to develop client contacts and support, and will be picketing outside Transerv until resolution is reached.
Workers are asking supporters to contact Transerv management at the dispatch desk tomorrow - 503-241-0484x204 or to call their personal extensions -Gassen Guitterriez 503-241-0484x218.
Supporters can also write Transerv at 310 SW 4th ave Portland, OR 97212 or come support workers on the picket line from eight until five tomorrow.
The Municipal Transport Workers can be reached at IU540@IWWPDX.ORG
For the One Big Union of all the Workers,
You gotta love it! Temp workers used as a management tool to bust the union which turns into SOLIDARITY between all the workers! Too Cool!
When they get talking to each other, it doesn't take long to realize that they've got a lot in common.
Here are two articles on the messenger strike in Portland.
And here is a short video....Real Player required...
After eight days of a well-supported strike it became evident that Transerv management was more willing to drive their business into the ground than deal with its workers on civil terms. After agreeing their point had been made, the messengers offered an unconditional return to work on October 25. Management said they would assess their needs and get back to them. Transerv swallowed its pride and on Sunday hand-delivered letters informing two workers that they could return to work. Three more were permanently replaced and put on a preferred hiring list. The three temps who were brought on in order to break the union (but who joined the strike) were told they were fired on Monday.
Throughout the strike public support and solidarity from the messenger community was amazing. At times 30-50 messengers, many of whom got their start at Transerv, joined the picket line. The picket was largely respectful and only one of five walking scabs returned for a second day to continue crossing the line after we explained to them what was happening. The company had clearly demonstrated its willingness to go to any length, even destroying its income and client base, to smash the union.
In the past six months, management had already alienated many clients with the byproducts of their attacks on their workforce. The strike was a desperate final attempt by union members to compel the company to act rationally and fairly. Workers are far from broken, and in fact stronger as a result of standing together instead of allowing themselves to be fired one by one. The messengers are actually relieved to be out of a such an unhealthy working environment, watching maniacal bosses drive a sinking ship. The company lost up to 40% of their business in the week of the strike and continues to lose clients while trying to run a messenger company with inexperienced walkers, and the lack of the best dispatcher in town (whose firing prompted the strike.) The company is also still facing outstanding discrimination, harassment and wrongful firing charges.
The strength demonstrated during the strike was ground-breaking. Across the industry workers and clients are pulling together, providing those who stuck their necks out with work at other companies. Messengers are now talking about worker control and beginning to assert themselves elsewhere in the industry. More workers have the inspiration to approach their bosses, not to mention the confidence of knowing a whole industry is backing them up. Workers from as far away as Montreal, where a car recently killed a messenger, have sent their support and regards.
Best of all the obstinacy of the bottom-feeding monster Transerv has stood as a concrete demonstration to the other bosses in the industry. One shop has informed messengers that they are reconsidering their policy of misclassifying bikers as independent contractors, and may take them back on as employees (with all the legal protections and benefits this brings).
Bikes at Transerv have been replaced with walkers (apparently the problem isnt the treatment of workers, its the bicycle sending impulses of independent thought through our seats), so there is no way they could ever maintain the same level of service. Considering this, as well as the fact that the company sacrificed a huge portion of their business by not responding rationally when the public was made aware of its despicable labor practices, the strikes impact will continue to be felt for quite some time. Many of the fired workers are also setting up the framework for a collectively run messenger company.
The strike has opened doors that messengers were not even aware of three weeks ago. Rather than be picked off one by one, workers took a stand together. Even as a minority in the workplace, the messengers disabled the company. When the company did not respond, the union alerted the public to the appalling conditions of messenger work in Portland, and sent a message to bosses across the industry.
This strike shows that even a small group of committed workers have strength. Workers successfully fought back, without official recognition, and the union has gained a foothold across the industry because of it. The Transerv strike is an example of the power of workers solidarity and should stand as a springboard for the struggle of messengers and all wage-slaves everywhere. Our position in this industry is stronger than ever.