Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Get Organized in the Workplace Now!

It is interesting that while many of us involved in social and economic justice expend a great deal of energy and effort struggling for justice around the globe, we fail to see ourselves as workers. And why should we want to? Be “workers” that is. US Americans are taught a highly contradictory message about our labor, which is: we must admire the blue-collar sector for its hard work and invaluable contributions to our society, but we mustn’t aspire to be them. So most of us go to college in order to avoid becoming “them.” I know I did!

“We do not struggle as working class, we struggle against being working class, against being classified… There is nothing good about being members of the working class, about being ordered, commanded, separated from our product and our process of production. Struggle arises not from the fact that we are working class but from the fact that we-are-and-are-not working class, that we exist against-and-beyond being working class, that they try to order and command us but we do not want to be ordered and commanded, that they try to separate us from our product and our producing and our humanity and our selves and we do not want to be separated from all that. In this sense, working-class identity is not something “good” to be treasured, but something “bad,” something to be fought against, something that is fought against, something that is constantly at issue.

The working class cannot emancipate itself in so far as it is working class. It is only is so far as we are not working class that the question of emancipation can ever be posed… The working class does not stand outside capital: on the contrary it is capital that defines it (us) as working class. Labor stands opposed to capital, but it is an internal opposition. It is only as far as labor is something more than labor; the worker more than a seller of labor power, that the issue of revolution can even be posed.” -John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power

Many of us already hold jobs, yet I imagine most of us have put little thought into organizing our own workplaces. There are many, many reasons for this, but the fact remains that US American labor remains largely unorganized (also for a number of reasons) and as a result we reinforce the market forces which continue to divide us. Sacrificing our time, energy and labor for the cause of economic and social justice while helping to reproduce the social order seems counter-productive and highly contradictory. Don’t we reinforce the capitalist way of life (with all its vicious divisions, exploitation, thoughtless consumption, concentration of power, etc.) and undermine our own good intentions and social initiatives to create a better world if all we do is change shopping habits? The collaboration between state and capital is incomparably more powerful than the combined efforts of protest, boycotts, and rallies. Fifteen million people took to the streets to stop the invasion in Iraq and yet our memory of that day has faded away.

Even the most radical and revolutionary non-profits (and especially NGO’s) often reproduce undemocratic corporate business models that disempower employees/associates (workers) by separating them from the very decisions that affect their lives. Everywhere we look we are reproducing the world against which we as activists for peace and justice struggle. We are not slowing thoughtless consumption and the production of destructive weapons; we are upholding it by refusing to seize power in the workplace where it is all created.

Many of you are fellow workers, so I am going to be a little pushy and ask that you give these ideas some serious thought. I know that all of us are very passionate about what we do and to which causes we give our efforts and energy, so I completely appreciate the way in which our time is limited. However, I did not arrive to this point by accident or haphazardly. I too spent—and continue to spend—a good deal of my creative energy and passion struggling for the goals and objectives of three groups: Community Action for Justice in the Americas (I'm a board member), Witness for Peace and Students for Economic and Social Justice (University of Montana). I love, with all my heart, these organizations. And they are an integral part of the struggle for a better world. However, I feel there are self-evident limits to the kind of effects that that work alone can have in changing the system. At the same time, I am not in the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) because I expect to see a revolution or to smash capitalism while I am alive (although I love to say these things and it would be nice! J). I do, however, expect to see and experience a drastic increase in democratic and direct discussions and actions that will lead to very tangible and material benefits. Above all, I expect to see drastic changes in power relationships. And we all agree that it is power who decides (i.e. bosses and their politicians).

Our social factory (including the Spectacular Society) has done such a thorough job of inoculating us against viral thinking such as the rights we should have to determine what work should be done and by whom, how it should be organized, or to what end. Also, we have not been encouraged to participate with power in how society as a whole might shape its own role in democratically organizing our material lives. No, we have been limited to negotiating the price of labor (a “negotiation” that has led to little more that a savage wage slave system).

I would hope that we think about the possibilities of directly participating in the class war through our workplaces and of all the potential that has for genuinely struggling alongside the faceless multitude of sweatshop workers for whom we fight. Beyond the inherent contradiction of fighting for social and economic justice without our selves being engaged in workplace democracy, we have a chance to address the complexity of globalization, off-shoring, immigration, and exploitative labor practices right where we work. How can we relate to workplace struggles if we are not engaged in them? We shouldn’t want better wages here and there, we should expect the world! Even in non-profits, we should be telling our board of directors: “one worker, one vote.” Without us there is no non-profit. “Labor has to become more than labor, the worker more than a seller of labor power.” Let’s open the books and let’s look at the numbers together. Clearly, non-profits are not a primary target for IWW labor organizing (though the IWW has already organized a couple of non-profits and is developing a model for non-profit workplace democracy right here in Missoula), but I expect many of us will end up working in this industry, so we shouldn’t forget the contradictions that exist even in the more ostensibly benign workplaces.

So let’s start telling the boss that we are going to make some changes in the workplace. We are going to start making decisions democratically. When we can do these things here and now, we are going to be much more credible as a force for justice over "there"! There is no war but class war!