The Origin of a Workplace Organization

Mhou

What happens when there is no mass workers’ movement to be seen or had?

My firsthand experience with organizing in the workplace is extremely modest. Most of it took place in a blue collar West Virginia public sector workplace. West Virginia’s public sector workers experience a labor relations regime that has more in common with workplaces in the 1930’s than it does with most contemporary public sector workplaces for 2 reasons:

1. Public workers have no trade union rights, no machinery for collective bargaining and thus no hope of consolidating the gains of their struggles. It is in fact a living manifestation of the old “open shop” of the early 20th century. Workers can voluntarily choose to join or form unions, but these organizations have no potential to sink roots into those workplaces where they exist because they will not be recognized by public employers.

2. In the public sector generally in the United States, ‘company unions’ are still legal and still exist, since the Wagner Act prohibition of company unions applies only to the private sector. A company union is an organization meant to represent workers that is funded and/or dominated by an employer. In West Virginia’s public universities, so-called “Classified Employees Councils” serve as company unions which are funded by university budgets and allow managers and other employer agents to join and run for leadership positions. These organizations are supposed to provide workers with representation, while their bosses may serve as their representative.

A group of my co-workers and I were friends; we talked and got together outside of work regularly. Starting around 2010, West Virginia’s Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) began instituting a variety of steep cuts while the state government instituted a public employee wage freeze. The cuts began with modest premium increases, followed by cuts to coverage for the weakest and most vulnerable segments of the workforce– they went after mental health services, substance abuse treatment and geriatric medicine first. After that, the cuts were generalized and affected the whole workforce.

Our employer eventually instituted a hiring freeze. What all this meant in practice was an exponential increase in our workload, an increasing rate of workplace injuries, wages that put us under the poverty line were frozen at these substandard levels and our health insurance cost more while providing less coverage. The price of our labor-power continued to decline relative to its value.

Our workplace was a hot shop for most of the next 7 years, and our department was the lowest paid in the workplace. Everyone was overworked, underpaid and increasingly agitated.

The problem with hot shops is that people most often express their resistance in the most rudimentary form possible: they quit. This was the burden on our efforts to organize over a period of a few years. If it’s possible for someone to get another job somewhere else, they’ll often take it when things deteriorate rapidly and there is virtually no hope of seeing improvement anytime soon at work.

The strategy going into the organizing effort was to build a culture of resistance and try to leverage the prevailing atmosphere at work into building a durable organization. Our core, original fraternal group had 4 workers. We worked on a shift of 12, in a sub-department of 25, in a department of maybe 60-70 workers.

Transforming the fraternal grouping into an organizing committee started with regular conversations about the deterioration we were experiencing at work and in our paychecks. Sometimes this meant following up or developing the conversation when others initiated talk about it, or just starting conversations on the subject. First it was made routine to talk about collective problems at work among ourselves, which then made it easier to do so with our other co-workers later.

When it seemed like a good time to raise the question of formal organization, I put the accomplishments of the West Virginia Public Workers Union (UE Local 170) onto a leaflet, printed them out and circulated them among our fraternal group.

To talk about the issue of formal organization, we agreed to meet on our break time to discuss it. After meeting and talking about the issues, we all agreed to join the union and meet regularly. In hindsight, this was premature. It was far too early in the effort to formalize our group. In addition, there was nothing we were doing that required formal membership. Without collective bargaining, there were virtually no resources or support that could have been offered to us beyond advice.

Despite being premature, it did provide a moral boost and enthusiasm. UE is one of the few trade unions in the US that still prints a union newspaper. Having a union card and newspaper in hand and reading about the struggles of other workers elsewhere had a positive effect, so it wasn’t a mistake; just premature.

The most important tactic that we pursued in building a culture of resistance was caucusing. In our regularly scheduled meetings, we talked about a number of issues. What happened afterward was that every time we were in work-related meetings with management, which were daily events, one member of the group would spontaneously bring up a topic of concern– whether wages or staffing or health and safety, stuff that was fresh from our own meetings, and the rest of us would reinforce their concerns. It happened organically the first time, but afterward it became a conscious tactic. We knew what we were going to say to management and that we would back each other up.

We quickly brought in the rest of our co-workers and workers from other shifts, in other sections of the department and even outside the department in on it as well. The effect was immediate: our co-workers felt empowered by seeing someone else put the screws to the boss and be backed up.

Over the course of a few months, this openly adversarial atmosphere was so pervasive that any member of management, whether from our department or not, got an earful about wages, staffing, health and safety and other workplace issues in any and every encounter with most every hourly worker in the place. The joke was if they passed you in the parking lot and said “good morning”, the response they got was inevitably, “good morning; where’s my raise?”

This was a success in one sense, in that it made explicit the open class antagonism between worker and employer, which was sustained by the continued existence of our grievances. But our problems were all (or nearly all) outside the purview of our employer: they were problems created by the state government which oversaw (and oversees) wages, hours and most working conditions for all public agencies. In that sense it was a Pyrrhic victory; no matter how much pressure we put on our bosses, or even our bosses’ bosses, there was little they could actually do. We did win some small isolated victories on overtime rules and getting new safety equipment, but the biggest issues– wages, PEIA and staffing– were out of reach.

Worker turnover continued to thin the ranks of our supportive co-workers, which kept our organizing committee from expanding. Eventually, members of our core group transferred to other departments or got new jobs, and so ended our organizing effort.

Some of the results of our effort remain: the health and safety gear we fought for is still being provided and the overtime rules we had changed are still in place. But without an organization present, there’s no tangible means to make the connection that it took a struggle to win those modest gains. Without this tangible memory, no one who got hired after our co-workers gradually quit and our group broke up could know that. Without organization, there’s also no means to connect our isolated and limited struggle with the broader labor movement or working-class in general.

In our case, our victories– that is, the material gains we won– were more durable than our organization; go figure.

As the working-class creates and recreates, produces and reproduces, generates and regenerates centers of resistance in the workplaces and communities in which they live and work, animated by every possible demand or act of resistance possible under capitalism, it is a tangible necessity to connect these centers of resistance into a living network representative of the real movement of the working-class.

Workers are never permanently mobilized. No matter how combative and militant they are at any given time, it just isn’t possible to sustain that mobilization on a permanent basis. Organization as a result of class struggle is the depository of the memory and lived experience of the struggle, and continues to survive until the next struggle.

Cultivating and nurturing this tendency toward organization requires us to share our experiences with each other so that we may apply each other’s successes and learn from each other’s failures.

There are other creative organizing tools and devices that we could have used.

We could have infiltrated the company union at our workplace and used it as a tribune. This tactic has a long history and was instrumental in many of the struggles that established the CIO. Our department’s representatives were 2 workers on another shift who had almost 60 years of seniority between them. A couple years after the wage freeze, one of them raised the wage issue directly to the top administrator at the public agency we worked for. This prompted said administrator to write a long letter, condescending in tone with the airs of a mother admonishing her children, which was sent to the entire workforce. Predictably, this contributed greatly to our collective agitation. But, it demonstrated that the ‘Classified Employees Council’ was a front in the struggle. One worker from our core group did eventually run for and win election to the company union well after our effort fell apart, but it wasn’t connected to any broader organization or group by that time.

This tactic isn’t just applicable to public sector workplaces in the US where company unions are still legal and still exist– it applies to all forms of company-funded and company-organized employee representation schemes in a variety of workplaces. Some employers form and fund committees and such for a variety of purposes, be it a plant safety committee or a charity committee that organizes company charitable fundraising and community service or a recreation committee that organizes softball or bowling leagues etc.

Anything that can provide a cover for gaining greater access and communication among and between co-workers can be infiltrated and turned into a base or vehicle to agitate for class issues. This may seem far-fetched, but arguably the most important precursor that led to the formation of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America was a group of 20 or so Philco workers who formed a plant ‘fishing club’ and began raising money to buy a boat– which was the cover for their underground organizing efforts.

Another tactic we could have utilized was building our own organization as we were, but using our connection to the union to insulate us, which would have provided greater room to maneuver.

In the old days, whenever a workers’ committee formed in a workplace and presented their grievances or demands to the boss, the workers’ leaders or the whole committee would get fired. To counteract this inevitability, labor organizations hired a full-time “Walking Delegate” aka “Business Agent”. The walking delegate/business agent is simply a worker who is not employed in the workplace where the workers are organizing. In that setup, the workers still form their committee, still articulate their grievances and demands, but the walking delegate/business agent is the one who takes them to the employer. Since the walking delegate/business agent isn’t an employee, they can’t be fired for raising grievances and demands to the boss.

At the time of the walking delegate/business agent innovation, it took employers completely off-guard. It was a very successful tactic.

In our case, our premature formalization with a union limited our options. It created a big barrier to entry for our co-workers. On one side were the most committed, who were paying dues and maintaining formal membership, and on the other, the majority of our co-workers who were not up for that level of commitment.

Looking back on the whole experience, we could have focused on bringing as many of our co-workers in on our committee as possible. At the same time, if one or 2 of us built a relationship with a trade union in the area (UE really didn’t have much of a physical presence in the region of the state where we worked), we likely could have found a local union staff member, local officer, delegate or steward to act as our ad hoc walking delegate/business agent and present the grievances and demands formulated by our group and our co-workers to management.

In that sense, there is an underground or secret organization among the workers, and its public, open face for the employer. We would have been insulated at the same time we would be escalating our demands and our resistance to the employer. Without a formal and existing dues structure, we would have been free to define our organization’s rules and mode of operation ourselves– which would have made it more straightforward to expand.

It is extremely difficult to find firsthand organizing experiences that don’t gloss over the patient and incremental work that goes into such efforts. There’s also a lack of strategic and tactical discussion that doesn’t reduce the question of success to either winning a union representation election or going out on strike. While these can be part of a successful strategy or could be successful tactics, it ignores the burning questions: what did you do leading up to it, and what do you do the day after it?

Turning this tendency toward organization into a strategy to connect the working-class at every phase of its struggles, across all social barriers, into a general front against capital; to define every struggle as a struggle to reappropriate what capital has taken from us and all of humanity in the past and will take from us and those who come after us in the future if we don’t end it; is the task of the socialist movement and a necessary prerequisite for the abolition of wage labor.

It’s more or less self-evident that some kind of public forum is necessary to serve as a tribune for organizing such a workers’ movement. It serves several purposes:

I. It provides a shared mode of communication between workers who are dispersed geographically. A rallying center develops whenever workers contribute to such a forum. It used to be reading, writing for, corresponding with, organizing reading groups for and selling newspapers from different forms of organization (party, union).

II. As a clearinghouse of useful information. Worker surveys and worker-correspondents are old traditions in the proletariat. The point is to collect, organize and disseminate the lived experience of the class struggle so that such experience can be put to use by other workers in the future in other places and in other situations.

III. It implicitly gives the working-class a collective voice. Issues are not reduced to the microscopic peculiarities in 1 shop, but are explicitly spread in the interest of the whole class everywhere else. It connects otherwise isolated struggles in a network of struggles, grievances, organizations, etc.

A serious threat to capitalism emerges whenever workers communicate with and learn from each other. The concern of one is the concern of all, an injury to one is an injury to all, is the rallying cry of the workers’ movement and forms a necessary part of the last rites of capital.

Without such a public forum and all that goes with it, examples like the struggle and the organization in my old workplace are condemned to a wholly solitary existence, indentured to the workplace, unable to develop at all; let alone develop into something more.

At a certain point, we all ought to come around to the idea that any effort, be it organized through a formal labor organization like a trade union or worker center, an independent committee or a political organization, in any form of struggle, be it a simple meeting of a handful of co-workers or a strike, is condemned to oblivion if it doesn’t advance the strategic interests of the whole working-class and the movement to abolish wage labor.

Experience of the class struggle is vital, but it isn’t everything.

Organization of the class is vital– the proletariat has to develop organs representative of the whole class for it to take power– but even the most advanced organizations are condemned to the same oblivion if there isn’t a deliberate link between such organization and the end goal– the abolition of wage labor.

The current generation of pensioners in the US experienced the last great strike wave and they created new or animated existing forms of organizations. But for the most part, these experiences will go with them to their graves when they die.

Capitalists have become adept at accelerating this process. In the bitter strike at the New York Daily News in 1990, 9 of the 10 trade unions representing the workers struck or agreed not to cross the picket lines, while “only the printers union said it would cross the picket lines, citing the need to protect their lifetime job guarantees.”

A substantial segment of the current generation of pensioners retired under collective bargaining agreements that included language like, “Tier One Full-Time Meat and Grocery Employees Hired Before 10/23/83 and Tier One non-Food Employees Hired Before 8/28/77…”

In the retreats of the 1970’s up to the present day, capital’s agents have succeeded in quarantining those militant and organized segments of the workforce by guaranteeing their wages and benefits at the same time they press hard to deteriorate the wages and benefits of new generations of workers with less seniority who did not participate in the strikes and other struggles that led to those higher wages and better pensions. This pattern of conduct on the other side allowed the capitalists to then chisel the higher paid, more secure workers after isolating them. Such patterns can be seen in the recent strike at Just Born Quality Confections in 2016 and the accelerating attacks on defined-benefit multi-employer pensions.

No matter how combative and militant, no matter how advanced, all struggles and class organizations not linked to the end goal of the abolition of wage labor are condemned to repeat this phenomenon.

Anti-Capital seeks to be part of that link. An old article in the press of the workers’ movement asked, “let us seek unity in the essentials and learn charity in the non-essentials.”

We should all definitely do that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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