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!


Renegade Eye said...

Your post is correct, with one modification I would add.

During the late 1960s, developed what some call workerism. Radicals joined the university hospital worker's unions etc, with their agenda. The problem was that events considered routine like antiwar demos, were in actuality the more important task.

Graeme said...

I've worked on farms and factories my whole life. i didn't really start to get serious about organizing workplaces until two or so years ago. I have had no luck. First I tried contacting the AFL-CIO and the teamsters for some help and they wouldn't even bother to respond back. The IWW is the way to go, for a number of reasons you are obviously aware of. There are only a few of us in town, but we are looking at a nonprofit. We'll see how it goes. We really need some training. We are in talks with the Twin Cities folks, hopefully they can make it to Fargo for some organizer training.

Ché Bob said...


I agree you should get some training as soon as possible. We made some mistakes when we first got started and the effect is still with us.

As far as organizing a non-profit, it is important and we are excited by our non-profit workers' progress. At the same time, we think there are definitely bigger fish to fry, and a training would really help you create a strategy.

Are you considering going to Philly for the training of trainers in September? I am. Your branch should consider sending someone.

Graeme said...

I will look into it and bring it up next meeting. I just got an email from the twin cities folks and they are going to see if the dates we picked works for them to come up.

troutsky said...

Holloway has gotten ahead of himself, using a Spectacular definition of "working class" in his analysis rather than a historical one. "Blue collar" has as much to do with class as "what a classy car!" It is not an "internal opposition" but an objective one he has twisted into his post-modern thesis.Whether you have rough calluses on your hands or headaches from staring at computers does not change the fact of exploitation and hierarchical control.

Those non-profits may in some ways present even greater organizing challenges than for-profit workplaces (as you suggest)because their flexible, cushy ,"non-resistance" absorbs and deflects (diffuses)our radical energy.

I like what you said about "opening up the books", democracy starts with everybody having the same access to ALL the information!

Ché Bob said...


I appreciate where you are coming from, but as much as you and I would like people to forget and wish away the identity politics of our modern society--likely an effect of the Spectacular Society--we must be alert to the influence of identity. Remember what we said about meeting people where they are? We need to think of the serious issue of transition.

One thing I like about Holloway's thesis is that he is right that an association of subservience and subordination has calcified around "working class" identity. Our work with the IWW is to help people transcend subservience, separation, etc., so I actually think we wholly agree with Holloway that we shouldn't want to be classified--especially as "working class" that has always been on the wrong end of the big stick.

...Maybe the problem with the Wobbly logo is NOT just the "employing class" language, but the "working class" language as well.

Ché Bob said...

One more thought...

"Working class" is used and experienced by many as a badge of martyrdom...while venerable, who really wants to be a martyr?

Isn't it possible that the whole "working class" identity has been festishized to the point of Spectacular absurdity?

In my post, I didn't say that because I went to college to avoid becoming a member of the working class that it actually worked out that way. In theory at least, I'm now supposed to be a member of some class of worker that--although in all actuality solidly working class--gives me the false impression that I am more autonomous, enlightened, and valued by society than the calloused-hand worker.

It isn't right. In fact, it needs to be confronted and subverted at every chance we get, but there is a period of transition we need to be prudent to move through. We need to meet people where they are and help to highlight all of the contradictions within our social relations.

troutsky said...

You are right about transition and undoing the damage done by capitalist propaganda but then we get to the question of psychology and all those layers. How best to peel them back?

You know that in most cases I argue for the value in complexifying and examining the variousness, nuance ,etc but when it comes to this "class" issue my instinct is to go in the other direction and reduce it. The handout on Nowtopia does a great job of clarifying "class" at the point of production and exploitation but then veers off into the aspect of "social identification" and I get this queesy feeling. All that "identity" can be manufactured and is (very successfully I believe)
Isn't it enough to stick to the instrumental definition and just build around work? Managers, educated professionals, coordinators, they are workers with no spare time and the color of the collar changes nothing.Can't nurses and janitors build solidarity? In other words I think our task might be exposing the lie that education = empowerment, that "society values" your work or that you are more "autonomous" because you have a different relationship with your time clock and supervisors.This ubiquitous alienation should be as easy to organize around as low pay!

Ché Bob said...

Although you are right is so many ways, I can't help but feel discouraged from the approach you advocate. I think of my co-workers and the very real feeling they have about themselves. I think we need to go back to the Nowtopia piece and reread it. Carlsson doesn't disagree that it's lame that identity politics are lame, but it's impractical to ignore their weight.

My suggestion is that we think of the nuance and think of the psychology and find an entry point for organizing people when, where and how they realize themselves. Then and only then, will we find a secondary entry point for the broader and much more important class analysis.

Nate said...

hey fellow workers! this is Nate from the IWW OTC and the Twin Cities GMB.

I gotta say, I'm SO excited that I stumbled onto this blog! I think we've got similar stuff that we like to read (that Holloway book is awesome!) and I'm flattered that y'all linked to my blog. On the point about people failing to see themselves as workers, I know for me it took be probably a whole year to feel comfortable with the fact that IWW members in Chicago called each other "fellow worker." I was like "I hate work, don't reduce me to a worker!" and was also afraid that it was like some sort of "work is our dignity" kind of thing. I'm more comfortable with it now, but I think it's really important that we remember that our goal is to end the global work machine. As for nonprofits, I had raelly bad experiences in those kinds of jobs so I'm probably unreasonable about my dislike for them. I definitely agree that the same sort of problems come up in those ostensibly benign workplaces, as you put it. I think the important point is to remember that for the people who work there the benign-ness is often *only* ostensible. Also related to this, the Portland IWW has several organized nonprofits (shelters mostly, I think) and some other branches have done organizing at places like ACORN. I know there's details somewhere on the iww.org web site, I think under IU650.

Anyway I really just wanted to say hi and how happy it made me to find this site.

take care,

troutsky said...

no "discouragement" comrade, this is all about exploration. This "secondary entry point" is a way to "meet people where they are". OK. I'm just pointing out that I resist attempts to abandon the first entry point, WORK, and that we ourselves don't succumb to thinking of worker as a negative.

Nate brings out the ambiguity in "work is our dignity" ,part of which is Spectacularized or fetishized certainly(as a capitalist slogan) but part of which has real meaning. Work has value on many levels, work is how we spend much of our lives and can be a way to contribute to a better society. I agree a close reading of Nowtopia would be super valuable, thanks for getting that in our hands CheBob.