North-East of the US : class struggle unionism and social issues

Par Fabien D
Publié le :

From Baltimore and Philadelphia to New York and Boston, we’ve met a lot of activists who have given testimony of the existence of active social movements in the US since the beginning of the decade (like Black Lives Matter or Occupy). These movements are often concerned about direct democracy, grass-root level actions and are suspicious towards political exploitation.
This article presents, this time, the current situation of American unionism and its history and provides an overview of the activities of the revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World. These interviews also lead to present social issues that American workers generally deal with such as the weakness of social rights, an unfavorable context for class struggle unionism, inequality, racism and police violence or gentrification related to housing issues.

You are unionists and syndicalists in New York City in “mainstream unions.” What are the main unions in the United States ? What is their history and what do you think about them ?

Andrew O’Rourke : There are two main labour federations. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win Federation. Change to Win is the newest Federation, it emerged in the mid-2000s. But its power and popularity are decreasing as a lot of unions are going back to AFL-CIAO which has been traditionally the most conservative federation in the United States. It came about in the 1940’s-50’s as a merger between the AFL, which is the old, very conservative trade-unionist organisation in the USA- it has been around since the late 1800’s- and the more radical industrial unionists of CIO which came out in the 1930s. So the two organisations combined and the AFL was the more dynamic of the two. So it has been a very conservative federation since that time. Some communists and radicals were purged during the red scare.

Brian Rosenthal  : Change to Win (CTW) is just as conservative as the AFL-CIO in the sense that its member unions are no more left wing, rank and file run, or willing to engage in direct action class confrontation, however, it does focus more on trying to organize unions industrially rather than based on narrow craft or trade. For example, the SEIU, the largest union within CTW, organizes massive locals that are less geographically or job specific as AFL unions, and are instead focused on including as many different types of workers within one given industry. One SEIU local, 32BJ, has more than 150,000 members located across the east coast of the United States from multiple types of jobs within the Property Service industry, including cleaners, porters, cafeteria workers, window washers, security guards, doormen, and maintenance workers. In a given office building in Manhattan, you might find the doormen, cleaners, porters, cafeteria workers, and delivery workers all belong to the same union. This clearly has opportunities for more militant action capable of shutting down vast sectors of the economy, however, the unions in CTW and SEIU specifically do not support rank and file control of the union or militant class confrontational tactics. There are very few opportunities for engaging members in direct struggle either during the bargaining process or in organizing capacities. There’s especially very little presence of an anarchist, syndicalist, or anti-capitalist force within CTW unions, except for individual militants and revolutionaries working alone or perhaps as a part of a revolutionary organization. Despite a lack of tactics more familiar to syndicalist unions in Europe or South America, US unions in both CTW and the AFL-CIO are still viable venues to fight for improving the material situation of working-class people, and furthermore, it is absolutely worth attempting to push unions in a more syndicalist or class-struggle unionist direction, as many American revolutionaries are trying to do.

Recently, fast food organizing campaigns bringing up the demand of raising the minimum wage had an immediate impact on shifting the rhetoric of the Democratic Party primary candidates. SEIU, the biggest union in the country within CTW, is organizing fast food workers and try to push for a minimum wage of $15 an hour by organizing strikes and rallies. The cruel irony, however, is that the leadership of the union endorsed Hillary Clinton for president despite her being against a $15 minimum wage. Clearly there is a lot to be done within the union to facilitate rank and file control.

Andrew O’Rourke : It also depends on geography. For example, in the south, where I was a radical involved in labour organising before coming in NYC, it’s a very different atmosphere. The unions were closed due to a high level of corporate interest and a high level of reactionaries, racist close to the far-right. Any single progressive issue, work-place issue or environmental issue was impossible. But they still need radicals to organize people although there are not a lot of union jobs. In the north, the unions have enough power, density to stand by themselves, so you can see a bigger split between the interests of the union and the interests of the radicals.
The legal framework in the united states makes it very difficult for minor unions or independent unions to exist. It’s very rare. But we certainly need to build a social movement unionism although business unionism is now the influential model.

Brian Rosenthal : The unions have two types of bad images in the USA. You have the right-wing party one, considering the unions are just after money. But in the working class, you have the same idea, unions are just leadership, it’s not us. « The union isn’t doing anything for us, the union is just taking my money... So we have to say that we should be the union, not the leadership. That’s the problem we have to deal with. The other image is the politician right wing idea which defends capitalists and bourgeoisie dominance and is against any form of resistance. The major strategy, in the broader anticapitalist left, has been trying to push existing unions more to the left through taking leadership positions, which clearly doesn’t go so far. Mainly you have to focus on political education and mobilizing the base. But the IWW do important work. In terms of capacity, they’re very small nationally, but they have important campaigns.

As members of the IWW in Baltimore, can you present the union and your activities ?
Isaac Dalto : The IWW is a revolutionary labour union. We’re an anti-capitalist, industrial union : our goal is to unite all wage workers in a single mass combat organization that will eventually take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the earth. We were constituted in 1905, but we were driven almost to extinction in the mid 20th century. The global justice movement, such as Seattle in 1999 and the following protests increased interest in our union, generated an influx of new members, and revived the IWW as a workplace organizing force. So we’ve existed in our current form for about 16 years.
We try to build strong shop-floor organisations with direct action, capable of interrupting production. One of our slogans is that we organize the worker, not the job. That mean that when you join the IWW, you’re a member for life, whatever shop you’re in. This is important when you have precarious workers, migrant workers, etc. It’s class unionism.

Jacob  : I work in the food service industry in Baltimore. The IWW gave us lot of trainings, and helps us a lot at work. We want better pay, we want to be treated with more respect and dignity, like all the organisational things, so just like basic things which can be easily addressed and helped with the union. The difficulties in organizing fast food workers are, I guess, scheduling, getting people together, turn-over, so like people are constantly leaving and there are new faces that you have to get interested.

Isaac Dalto : In Baltimore, in food service, we had many members working at Jimmy John’s restaurants in 2014. I was one of them. Conditions there were awful. We made minimum wage. We were not allowed to call out sick without finding our own replacement. We had unreliable schedules and would sometimes be sent home after 2 or 3 hours of work. Bicycle delivery drivers were responsible for paying for our own repairs, and expected to work in hazardous conditions like snowstorms. Once, they asked me to work when I had pinkeye. 

After we “went public” and announced ourselves as a union, the company fired people, slashed our members’ hours, threatened and intimidated workers in private meetings, and stapled anti-union propaganda to everybody’s paycheck. We responded by organizing three one-day strikes by delivery drivers, charging Jimmy John’s with legal procedures through the NLRB, and picketing the biggest store in the franchise every time they fired someone.

We also held “tip cups” actions on the company’s busiest days. One issue we agitated around constantly was that, according to corporate policy, sandwich makers are not allowed to have a tip jar. So on the busiest days of the year, when big crowds were drawn to the store from the nearby Convention Center, we would have IWW members standing outside passing out plastic cups with “TIPS” written on them. Each cup had a leaflet in it about how little Jimmy John’s workers get paid (at the time, it was $7.25 per hour). Customers would leave tips on the counter, and managers would run around like crazy trying to take away the cups and steal the money, just to enforce the no-tips policy. The sandwich line became a chaotic free-for-all, with workers scrambling to grab tip money before their managers could snatch it away. Eventually, the managers just gave up. Our goal was to put Jimmy John’s in a no-win situation : either they allowed us to break the rules and collect tips, or they enforced the rules and visibly stole money from low-wage workers, agitating people and stirring up resentment. And they did both.
Unfortunately, by Spring 2015, our shop committees had fallen apart, thanks to a combinations of firings, slashed hours, and simple turnover. We still have members working at Jimmy John’s, and we’re in the process of rebuilding those shop committees, as well as organizing in other fast food restaurants. We had a lot of publicity from that Jimmy John’s campaign, and it brought a lot of new young labour activists, socialists, and anarchists into our union. In Baltimore, we do organize mainly young and precarious workers. We have a couple of people who are in their 40’s or 50’s, but most of our members are in their 20’s or early 30’s, precariously employed in one way or another. In addition to the food service organizing committee, we also have a high school teachers organizing committee.
There’s also Red Emma’s, a radical bookstore and coffeeshop. It’s an IWW job-shop, collectively operated and owned by the 20 people who work there, and run democratically. It’s a great example of self-management in practice. We also have an IWW cooperatively-owned bicycle shop called Baltimore Bicycle Works (BBW). Most of our funding for our campaigns comes from the dues that Red Emma’s and BBW pay, and we’re very grateful. When I was younger, Red Emma’s was also responsible for my early political education, thanks to their bookstore and political discussions I had with activists there.

Pasha, you’re the secretary of the IWW General Membership Branch in NYC. Can you explain the legal system of unions in the US ? How do the IWW deal with this system ? Is this an obstacle ? Do you manage to use it ?

Pasha : The labor law and the way unions are forced to operate sometimes makes it hard to organize. It requires a unique union in the workplace. The biggest unions are business unions, they’re middle men between the workers and the boss, they negotiate everything behind closed doors and workers have nothing to say, etc. Big unions usually do donations to presidential campaigns, usually for the democratic party. There are a lot of business unions that are genuine in their belief that they’re doing the right thing but sometimes they just want cynically have more members to have more dues so they can have more financial power. It’s the measure of success, but some of the workers don’t even know they are in the union. The union has been elected some years ago and they signed the contract but...
IWW don’t sign contracts. It’s like a business contract, with what we get, what we’re supposed to do, what we’re not supposed to do, etc. Usually, the boss puts a no-strike clause. In the short term, they win benefits, but in long term, they totally destroy the power of the unions.
We try to be in the workplace and it’s difficult but people in the United States think of unions as bureaucracy. We have to explain that workers will negotiate with the boss without the middle-man, with direct actions, and ultimately strikes... It starts with delivering demands, marches to the boss... but most of the unions rarely go to that stage.

Nationally, the unions are usually left but they do not want to be associated with the more radical left. They are cautious, unwilling to experiment on certain class issues. But you can have local dissidents. Some local unions do stuff which pisses off the national organisation. For example, Teamsters unions are very ossified at national level, but they do amazing things in NYC. Some of our members are dual carders, which means they belong to the IWW and another union at the same time. That depend of the situation in the workplace.

What are the IWW’s activities in New York City ?

Pasha : I think that NYC has the highest union density in the United States. There’s a lot of labour organising going on, especially in service industry. Wage-theft is a routine procedure. One of our main organizing campaigns concerns food processing and distribution. It concerns usually recent immigrants from Latin America. They get a job and then they are exploited, people threaten them, you know, sometimes because they are illegal, or something like that... Not all of them are illegal but the mistreatment happens no matter what. So wage-theft, brutal bosses... Starbucks campaign some years ago, was a national IWW campaign but it began in NYC. Food production and distribution have been targeted for at least 8 years. It has been a primary target because it’s a messy situation. Now we have a presence in two factories. They produce bread, and there is a strong IWW presence. Workers won in one of those bakeries wages increases and better treatment from the boss. In the other bakery, they already won better treatment and monthly meetings with the boss directly. They can negotiate without a boss union, there’s no contract.

Besides food production/distribution our other campaigns in NYC now are, first, Beverage Plus, a defensive fight over the money some of our members are owed after they won in court. And Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) : There has been a lot of interest and movement towards organizing workers inside the prison system.

More generally, can you present the main social issues that you deal with in this city ?

Pasha  : There are a lot of issues with housing, the rent is more and more expensive. A lot of people are pushed out from Manhattan for example There’s a movement that fights for housing rights, tenant rights ; that’s pretty interesting. There’s always huge waves of new comrades coming to the city, you know it’s a big city, with students etc. It also drives gentrification because they don’t know anybody here and people can be exploited, giving them high rent. So they say it’s expensive here but at the same time they’re driving out the city people who lived here for generations, you know... So gentrification, basically, is one of our social issues. There are still working-class or poor neighborhoods but it’s shifting around. There are some for example even in Manhattan, in northern Manhattan, it has an history of activism and rent strikes, etc.
Police brutality is also an issue. The NYPD is notoriously racist, corrupt and violent. Recently a protest happened. An African-American man was choked to death by the NYPD on camera in Staten Island. After that, there were several months of weekly protests and marches, like blocking off bridges and stuff like that.
The Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most interesting movements in recent months. Smaller things happened also after Occupy was destroyed, projects, groups doing good work.

Jason, can you describe the social situation in Boston for people who don’t know a lot about it , and your activities there ?

Jason Freedman : Boston is a predominantly white city, extremely dominated by educational institutions and healthcare institutions ; we have a lot of hospitals here. You have Harvard and MIT, but also very working class schools such as Wentworth or UMass Boston. I think the social issues here mainly concern racism, police and gentrification. It’s a lower crime city. The business unions are kind of strong in Boston. It is considered a very liberal city. It tends to vote "Democrat" in the elections and the business unions tend to support the Democracy Party.
There has been a resurgence of rank-and-file organizing, the Wobblies being part of that, also small elements of the AFL-CIO, elements of Unite-Here have gotten more militant. When Occupy was going on, some unions were supportive, like the teachers union and also the nurses union.
The IWW regionally are involved in several campaigns, organizing food stuff workers, education workers and workers at Harvard university.

Can you be more specific concerning your activities in Harvard University ?

Geoffrey C. : Harvard is one of the largest employers in Massachusetts, so there’s thousands and thousands of people who work here. Discrimination is a huge issue in Harvard. Since I’ve been a union rep, I’ve seen so many examples of racial discrimination, gender discrimination, discrimination on the basis of disability, discrimination on the basis of national origin... In other places I’ve worked in, people were really worried about discrimination claims, but here at Harvard it seems like management really doesn’t care.
So, we’re involved in anti-discrimination work, particularly on campus we’ve been holding actions to complain about racism and other forms of discrimination. For example, we’re doing actions, pickets to call attention to dining service workers issues and also security guards issues because some of them have actually joined the IWW. For example, they ’re trying to push out someone who came back from disability leave, they always talk to her about her bad work...and they want to fire another person who has been told by his boss that his English was not good enough for a job that he has done for 9 or 10 years...

I think the image of the union is one of a fighting union, a fighting democratic grassroots organization. More generally, the union appears more and more as a class-struggle union in the country and that’s why also people have joined too. The people we have reached include scores and scores of clerical workers, custodial workers, dining service workers and students.

Geneviève L. : We’re regularly picketing in Harvard square. We’ve got coverage in school newspapers when we do that. We also collaborate with the students, they obviously can do things that we can’t. They occupied buildings here multiple times. There are also various sit-ins.. Sometimes we have like public meetings or things like that. About discrimination, contract issues...

Geoffrey C. : Recently, layoffs have been huge. In all unions, there have been waves of layoffs, in 2004, 2009. We’ve lost a part of our membership because of layoffs, early retirements, etc. Our union leadership didn’t do anything about it, hundreds of jobs were gone and they did nothing about it... So we did our own campaign and created our own actions, with students as Genevieve mentioned.

Geneviève L. : Sometimes, there’s a couple of workers in the pickets, and sometimes a lot of Wobblies and local left come up, and there are dozens and dozens of people ... There was a living wage campaign recently and there were several hundred people every day or weeks.

Harvard did many terrible things concerning class struggle in history. The Bread and Roses strike, which was a strike of mainly women, in 1912 in the North, like the towns in North Boston and Northern Massachusetts. There were young women, textile workers, like immigrants from all over the world. So they were on strike and Harvard University gave course credits to students and urged them to defend their class by going to serve as strikebreakers. And, of course, the students, at the time, were all men and strikers were only women. And they were sent there by the university to break the strike. But the strike was ultimately one of the most important and successful in history.
Harvard did many other terrible things. There’s a film about how Harvard, even in its institutional core, departments are about imperialism. Some of them were founded in the 60’s and were barely separated from CIA. So there are international areas studies programs that have always operated as oppressive military industrial tanks or informal conferences...

John and Nathaniel, as members of IWW in Philadelphia, can you describe the main social issues and activist movements in this city ?

Nathaniel Miller : Philadelphia is a very historic city, it was once the capital, but also one of the largest cities in the USA (the 5th). For a long time, it was a very industrial city, there were a lot of factories here, a large shipping industry, it’s still a major port city but it used to be much more significant.

You had lot of people from different ethnic groups coming here. Also, there has always been a large black population. In Pennsylvania the Quakers, a Christian domination, were very involved in the movement for the abolition of slavery. So after the end of slavery many people came for jobs and to escape the Ku Klux Klan and racial violence they had to face in the South. Now it’s a majority black city, very working class, one of the poorest in the United States. Industries, factories have left the cities. It’s a working class history, but there’s a long history of “racial tensions” within the city, hitting different sectors of the working class against each other, particularly the Irish and the Italians against blacks in the 19th century, and now with the new wave of immigrants, against Mexicans.
The Philadelphia police are notoriously racist. A good example of that is the MOVE organization in the 70’s and 80’s, a mostly black, kind of religion/social justice group. The police nearly sieged their house one year and finally stormed it in 1978. In 1985 they had another house in West Philadelphia, where the police used a bomb, burning the building, actually the entire city block, and killed the people (5 adults 6 children). No one was held accountable for that. That’s only one example. Philadelphia is also where Mumia Abu Jamal is from. He ’s a prisoner, a radical journalist convicted for killing a cop, despite enormous evidence pointing to his innocence (there’s a street in the Paris suburb St. Denis named after him).

There’s still a dense union presence relative to the USA, although a lot of the unions here, we call them the building trades, are fairly corrupted and not interested so much in organizing workers.
There are movements now in the city like the Black Lives Matter movement which grew out of the Ferguson protests. It’s not new but it takes more public attention today. Cops can really kill without serious consequences and there’s now an attention in the mainstream, thanks to these mobilizations. Organizing happens in neighborhoods, churches. Historically, within the black community, churches have been extremely powerful institutions, both from social connectivity, also progressive movements within the black community (ex : Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.). There are a lot of organizing, demonstrations with thousands and thousands of people.

John Kalwaic : Today people work in fast food, retail... One of the biggest employers is the University of Pennsylvania. Philly is partly a college town. There are a lot of differences between middle class folks, coming from the suburbs who move here, and African Americans, and others who have lived here for a longer time.
There’s also security guards, employed by colleges and other places that use a lot of security guards.

Nathaniel Miller : there’s very high unemployment, very high poverty within the city because industrial jobs left the city 25-30 years ago. Many jobs are in the service industry and because of the precarious nature of the jobs, Philadelphia is extremely poor compared to the rest of the state of Pennsylvania. The rest of the state has also more public resources.

Two generations ago, people with money, particularly white people, left the city for the suburbs. So they took their tax money out of the city, which was for example used for schools. So Philadelphia closed many schools. The city is notoriously corrupt, there’s less money and the money is poorly spent. Now the city is trying to make wealthier people move back from the suburbs to bring more tax money back in the city. So now over the past 20 years, wealthier people are moving back into the city but the result is that people who were living in the neighborhoods, mostly working class, black, are getting pushed out of the neighborhoods they were living in the past couple of generations, being replaced by mostly white more affluent people, because property values go up. So there’s a larger police presence, to protect the wealth and capital in the city. Young black men are particularly targeted, there are curfew laws in my neighborhood for example.

John Kalwaic : Concerning history, there was an anarchist movement in the past with Italian and Jewish immigrants, there’s a long history of the Black Power movement in the 60’s and 70’s.
In the IWW you had a multiracial, one of the first multiracial, unions in Philadelphia. In the 1910’s and 1920’s, they organized immigrants, African-American, people of color, etc. They were in transportation, particularly along the waterfront. One of their leaders was Ben Fletcher, he was African American. And in those times, the Ku Klux Klan was everywhere, it was a very racist time. And the IWW managed to organize them together, at least for a while. It controlled the docks.

Nathaniel Miller : IWW were an anticapitalist and multiracial union, one of the first in the United States. It’s very significant in the American context.

Do you think, more generally, that the social situation is getting worse now in the United States of America ? What are the main differences between Europe and USA concerning these issues ?

Nathaniel Miller : I would say the social situation in Philadelphia, pretty much everywhere in America, is getting much worse. The differences, the wealth gap, the differences between the poor and the rich is getting greater and greater. The rich people, basically, are kind of building themselves into walled communities guarded by security guards and police. They’re sort of leaving poor people to fend for themselves, basically, though the expanded police presence is felt in the poor communities, particularly black and brown communities (many working class whites tend to support the police by contrast).
A lot of things that Europeans don’t understand or know about America, and that they take for granted in Europe, is that there’s no real social safety net here. There’s no health care to speak of, I mean Obamacare is crap. I guess it’s slightly better than what was there before, which was nothing, but it’s not very much better, there’s tons of holes in it, people that don’t have access... Other things, access to public housing, to food assistance, all these things , they don’t really exist for most people in the United States, except those at the very bottom, and even for them there are numerous loopholes designed to exclude them— for example having a criminal conviction denies a person access to many of the meager social services available. So a poor American is basically one step away from disaster, one accident happens, he has to go to the emergency room, a family member gets sick, they lose their job because they’re late to work 15 min, there’s just no protection for them. One missed rent payment, they are on the street. So it creates this sense of precariousness that I don’t think exists quite the same in Europe. There’s that safety net, you don’t necessary have this intense fear of be out on the street because you can’t pay a medical bill, for example, or because you missed a rent payment. 

So this creates this sense of desperation. And it also makes people, I think, less susceptible in a way, to unions campaign because they have genuine fear when workers organize about losing their jobs. In America, that means something very different. Because when you lose your job, that’s it, there’s nothing else, you could be on the street or in prison. Maybe it is for immigrants in Europe, that’s a different situation, but for typical European nationals, they have access to more social benefits. That’s a thing that doesn’t really exist in the US, for the most part, at least.

Interviews by Fabien Delmotte

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