Saturday, December 20, 2008

Article on Employee Free Choice Act

Unions: A Surprise American Favor

You certainly wouldn't think that most Americans approve of unions. After all, only about 12 percent of those who work for a living are union members.

But despite that low percentage, and despite the frequent anti-union messages delivered by some of the country's most influential corporate and political leaders, a new Gallup poll shows that almost 60 percent of the people surveyed approved of unions. Less than 30 percent disapproved.

Most of the support for unions comes from Democrats and independents. It works out to 72 percent of Democrats favoring unions, 63 percent of independents favoring them - but only 38 percent of Republicans in favor.

Almost two-thirds of those polled believed that unions should have more influence, or at least the same amount of influence, as now. Only about one-third said they wanted unions to have less influence.

Other polls have also shown strong public support for unions. One of the most significant showed that more than three-fourths of Americans support enactment of strong laws to protect the right of workers to decide freely on whether they want their workplaces to be unionized.

The National Labor Relations Act is supposed to guarantee that, but the law is only barely enforced and is greatly in need of strengthening.

Studies show that thousands of employers regularly intimidate workers who support or attempt to organize unions. They often fire or threaten to fire them or otherwise punish them, despite the law.

Employers order supervisors to spy on organizers. They force workers to attend meetings at which employers describe unions as evil dues-grubbing outsiders. They often claim - falsely- that unionization will lead to pay cuts, layoffs, outsourcing of work or even force them out of business.

The legal penalties for such actions are slight - usually small fines at most. Often the fines are not even imposed. And workers fear complaining to the government about violations because it usually takes months - if not years - for the government to act, and the complaining workers could meanwhile be fired.

That keeps many workers from even trying to exercise their union rights. Surveys show, in fact, that more than 60 million non-union workers want to unionize but won't try because they fear employer retaliation. And for good reason: Every year, more than 60,000 workers who do try to organize unions are punished, half of them fired.

There's a remedy for that - the Employee Free Choice Act that's been before Congress for several years. It would greatly increase the penalties on employers who violate workers' union rights, fining them up to $20,000 per violation. And employers who stall in contract negotiations with workers who vote to unionize - another common tactic - would have the contract terms determined in mediation or dictated by an arbitrator.

The key provision of the proposed law would grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer's workers, rather than holding an election, as is now done in most cases. The law was like that originally, with no lengthy election campaigns and thus less opportunity for employers to intimidate workers.

Opponents of the Free Choice Act have seized on that so-called card check provision as a violation of democratic principles. They claim it would deny workers the basic democratic right of a secret ballot. But there are at least two major flaws in that argument:

The Free Choice Act says if a majority of an employer's workers ask for unionization to be determined by a secret ballot election rather than by a card check, an election will be held. Secondly, those union representation elections that opponents of the proposed law like so much are in themselves serious violations of basic democratic principles.

Employers now openly violate the provisions of the Labor Relations Act that govern election campaigning. They electioneer among voters at their workplaces any time they wish, while prohibiting organizers from entering the premises or even posting pro-union material. And they require voters to attend pre-election meetings at which only the employer's side is presented.

What's more, the voting is held on the employer's property, with voters escorted to the polls by employer representatives. And employers who lose elections can delay recognizing the results for years. That's democracy?

The Free Choice Act passed the House handily last year, but failed to get the 60-vote majority to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Chances seem much better this year, in part because of strong support by President-elect Obama, who was a co-sponsor of the measure in the Senate and has pledged his continued strong support, as have most Democratic members of Congress.

The AFL-CIO's campaign for the law is one of organized labor's biggest ever, involving millions of dollars and millions of members. But the opposition is waging what's shaping up as an even more expensive effort, the biggest anti-union campaign in many years. It's being waged by many powerful corporate employers, the entire Republican establishment, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other influential stalwarts of the anti-union right.

They may think they have a majority of Americans on their side, since such a small percentage of workers belong to unions. But even should they win their battle with organized labor, the polls make clear that a significant majority of Americans nevertheless support the unions that the powerful opponents of free choice would destroy.

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website,

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tis the Season of Sadness

I have never been very fond of the Xmas season.  It is not a very socially acceptable, and verboten with the kids, to have a negative attitude about the season of giving. I have struggled mightily to reform my attitude, but to little success.

But this holiday season many people are struggling not with bad attitudes about Xmas but with a dark mood.  The families in Iraq and Afghanistan who are living under a  hail of death from the sky, and those of us here who extend them our vigilant compassion, feel the weight of sadness acutely. The growing ranks of the homeless, many of them families, will have little to lighten their mood.  The growing number of folks struggling without, or with inadequate, medical coverage, many (19,000 last year) who face avoidable deaths as a result of lack of access to needed medical care, face a crushing sadness.  The hundreds of thousands of workers being fired and laid off on the eve of Xmas have little to celebrate. The victims of Katrina who STILL are without help must struggle with bitterness rather than inviting joy.  The vast numbers of young people who watch their futures foreclosed for lack of jobs or affordable education may be tempted to find joy in a bottle or a syringe. And no such list can be a complete inventory of those who's Xmas stocking is filled with sadness due to the tidal wave of injustice that is crashing over the world. The majority of whom will never reach our attention. And such a list is being added to by the moment as the forces of greed consume the earth and its people.  But individually we can summon the gumption to seek some happiness of some kind, hopefully from the companionship of family and friends, and if out of nothing more than spite, spit in the face of adversity and suffering and enjoy some good feeling.  I certainly hope so.

In the mean time the news, known and less known, relentlessly pounds us down.  I feel especially for all those folks who invested their hope for better times in recent presidential politics.  Personally, I had little hope that the verbiage about CHANGE was little more than window dressing for the reality of LITTLE OR NO CHANGE. Expect little, disappointed less. But I feel for those who sincerely hoped and worked for a better government in Washington.  How can it feel to these people to watch the daily parade of appointments of high level administrative officials who's record is one of support for the same policies that have so stricken the country over the last several decades of corrupt leadership?

But hope is an irrational feeling. It's purpose is to allow us to continue on in spite of it all, and in situations of great stress, such as we are experiencing now, it is the main and last defense against despair and depression.  So I say to those who still cling to hope of short term salvation, keep it up, its good for you and its good for me to see you exercising your defenses.  I too have hope, but it is the paradoxical sort that expects things to get better only after they get as bad as we can possibly imagine.  It is not the kind of hope that most people need or wisely want.

Who knows?  Maybe Obama is some kind of wizard who will charm the dragons of destruction that he is inviting into government and surprise us all.  Go ahead and have such irrational day dreams, but while you are at it I suggest that you do what you can to protest.  For instance I just signed a petition against the appointment of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to be the next Secretary of Agriculture at the Organic Consumers Association's web site ( ).  Any such forms of resistance, whether or not they can be seen as effective, can be considered an Xmas gift to everyone.  So, ultimately in this season of giving the best gift is to give a damn and keep stubbornly giving.

Happy holidays,


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Proposal From FWs Del Ducas

Our Organizing Approach Isn’t Working; So Let’s Try Something Radical

By Kristin and Jim Del Duca

Have you ever wondered why our union, which we consider to be the most valuable in the history of the planet, has become so small in numbers? With capitalism running rampant across the globe, slavery and exploitation at an all time high, our planet’s life support systems starting to melt down, and workers losing their jobs and homes at a record breaking pace, why aren’t we IWW members numbering in the tens of millions instead of a couple thousand? Wouldn’t you say these questions are vitally relevant?

We won’t waste time restating the OBU’s philosophy, history, or how time has proven that we, of all the unions in the world, understood long ago what needs to be done before the workers will enjoy their fair share of this earth’s bounty. There is no point in preaching to the choir. What we will put before you members is our observation that WE ARE FAILING to make measurable progress towards achieving our goal of a Worker’s World. We have the vision, experience, and organizational structure to accommodate and empower MILLIONS of workers. The fact that we only have a few thousand card-carrying Wobblies means that our current approach to organizing and recruitment simply isn’t working and should be scrapped A.S.A.P. I don’t know who said it originally, but some smart person once offered, “Insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result.” Well, we are crazy to continue what we have been doing when the results are worse than miserable.

When this union of ours was most powerful and admired, with hundreds of thousands of members and supporters, they didn’t have the Internet or cell-phones for communication. They had to stick a stamp on a letter or spend a day’s pay on an operator-assisted long distance telephone call. There was no such thing as a DVD. If they wanted to witness a speech they had to travel, wait, brave the cops, and hope they had train fare to get home. The list of inconveniences is a long one, but the point we want to bring up here is that despite all the trouble they got the word out to those who wanted to hear it and welcomed every worker who was ready to carry the Red Card and practice Direct Action. We’ll say this again: They got the word out so everyone knew about what the IWW is, and they welcomed everyone who wanted to be a part of our movement. So why aren’t we doing this today? We can hear the whines now…”But we’re doing everything we can….” To those spouting weak excuses for poor performance we must respectfully say “Like Hell we are!”

Our train of thought about this situation got started when we weren’t able to attend an Organizers Training seminar a few months ago. Yes, we had been puzzled before then about why practically no one had heard of the IWW and what we are fighting for. We had heard about the One Big Union from our elders and from references in old radical literature, but thought that the IWW had closed up shop half a century ago. It was a Google search on the Internet that led to our becoming members. Pure serendipity. We don’t think that depending on luck is the way to build a union. So the story goes back to how we missed the organizing seminar and thought “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a DVD that we could learn this information from?” Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? With the Internet and You-tube we could be empowering thousands of workers a day, with exponential growth in our unions membership. Even more importantly, we could be teaching Direct Action and Worker Solidarity on a worldwide scale, with the time-tested methods of the Old IWW, the union that was about RESULTS, and getting the goods NOW.

We promptly wrote to the Organizing Committee and GHQ, certain that an idea like this would catch fire like a dry forest in July. Much to our surprise, they didn’t like the idea. The most positive feedback we got from the Main Office folks was, (paraphrased) “A DVD to augment our organizing seminars might be good, but we feel that the skills of organizing are too complex to be communicated in any way other than in person.” Furthermore, if we wanted to make it we would be on our own. It is tempting to speculate that power and control is very important to some people within the very union that is founded upon de-centralization of power and individual self-determination within the collective. Ironic, isn’t it?

We were not only shocked at this stone-age attitude, but we also couldn’t believe that this view reflected that of the general membership. So we sent about a hundred emails out to Branches all over the world. Guess what? Those folks who wrote back were 100% in support of the idea. This would suggest that the elected officials in charge of organizing and recruitment are out of touch with current needs and wishes of the rank and file. That is why this article is being offered in the GOB. The Capitalists are no longer relying on door-to-door salesmen to disseminate their message. They use the most up to date marketing strategies and methods and they are kicking our collective tails in the propaganda and organizing arenas. For us to continue to rely upon Guru-to-disciple organizing will only yield more success for Capital.

The strategy that we are proposing is that of producing a radical recruitment/organizing video for free electronic and other distribution. A working title could be “How to be a Successful Wobbly and a Labor Radical”. It would teach who we are, where we came from, where we are all going together, and how to implement Direct Action, Worker Solidarity, and Getting the Goods. These principles apply to every worker around the globe and do not need to be country specific at all in terms of laws, etc. It is our heart-felt belief that there are literally hundreds of thousands of workers who will join the IWW if they can be made aware that we exist and MEAN BUSINESS! We also assert that hundreds of thousands of other workers who will not become IWW members would nevertheless use our strategies and tactics to better there own conditions if only supplied with the tools. What are we waiting for?

Maybe this idea is a lousy one and won’t produce the hoped for results. If it doesn’t prove successful we’ll dump it, learn from our mistakes, and try something else. The important thing here is that we have to become aggressive about achieving our goals and producing recognizable results. If we want to burn down the theoretical Capitalist forest then we have got to set ten thousand little fires in every part of it so there will be no chance of their killing the flames. Every DVD or download would be a match set to kindling. We want to see those little sparks flying all over the world, and soon.

Please contact us at if you want to be part of this project. There is no question that we will need plenty of help. In Total Solidarity for the One Big Union, Kristin & Jim.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The conundrum of extreme wealth

I often find myself puzzling about why the general public, including many in journalism and academia who should know better, have such a hard time noticing that the plutocracy is in the process of dismantling the US and the rest of the world's economy and condemning the world to generations of poverty, disease, despair, death and decay.  An objective look at the predictable effects of extreme wealth concentration, neglect of basic services, education, agricultural fertility, ecological destruction and induced stupidity by means of mass media manipulation, indicates that we are nearing the bottom of a deep hole with no hope of climbing out any generation soon.  Historically the current phase of world civilization resembles most the period when Europe was headed into the Dark Ages.  Some perceptive academics have caught on, but very, very few.  The only candid portrayal of the situation being the one presented by Jane Jacobs in her last book, Dark Age Ahead (

Then it came to me this morning while doing the washing.  We have a pervasive fundamentalist belief that is so strongly held across the world that no one is really aware of its blinding effect.  It is a religious belief in Progress.  People find it impossible to believe that we could be led deliberately into decline. Something like this happened toward the end of the Roman Empire.  Pax Romana was such an amazing success, on a scale, in terms of general improvement of standards of living and personal security, comparable to the Industrial Revolution, that even as the institutions of the Roman state were becoming hollow caricatures of themselves, even as banditry, pestilence and war were depopulating large swaths of the Empire, even as barbarian tribes were routinely sacking great Roman cities, the general population continued to believe in the glory of Roman civilization.  Then, as now, the vested interests of a very narrow, hyper-wealthy segment of the Roman citizenship, were working actively against the interests of the general population as they savaged the machinery of the empire in the process of concentrating their personal wealth at the expense of everyone else.

These days it is nearly impossible to read any progressive screed without encountering advice about what we need to do, as a world wide society, to ward off climate destruction, bring the population explosion under control, improve the lives of the poor and bring an end to war.  The brilliance of many of these proposals is startling and the conclusion, that at least I come to, is that saving the world is not a technical problem.  It is a political problem.  It is a problem of concentrated power that, in every instance, is working against positive change and for a regression to a feudalistic form of order, euphemistically referred to in the inner sanctums of power as the New World Order.

Great wealth and power seems to have the effect of transforming otherwise well educated and modern people into stone cold troglodytes content to see the rest of humanity suffer in the extreme in order to glorify their unopposed dominance.  The spiritual decay induced by wealth was hinted at in the biblical parable of the camel and the eye of the needle. Our fortune lies not in our stars but in our hearts, and in our quest of avarice we abandon hope in the future in favor of the coin of the present.

The single most powerful predictor of a societies health and longevity is economic equality.  Though pockets of equality still exist, generally secondary, as with Western Europe, to their ability to parasitize the third world economies, the overall, worldwide reality is of rapidly increasing inequality and the emergence of mass abject poverty.  The dominant reality, in our age of splendid achievements and excesses for the few, is of an accelerating downhill course that is headed for the edge of a steep cliff, and no realistic possibility of a reversal of this trend is easily imagined.

A Short History of Progress is a book-length essay by Ronald Wright published in 2004.  In this insightful, and I think little appreciated study, Wright contemplates just what I am talking about here.  I highly recommend it for any thoughtful reader.  He lays out in a concise and scholarly way the facts of past misadventures of civilization, their paths to eventual collapse and the lost opportunities that could have saved them from destruction.  But I guess, not surprisingly for the author of a popular book, he ends up challenging us to not make the same mistakes.  He, like all the progressive thinkers, prescribes a choice of intelligent innovations that can save us from falling off the cliff.  But of course the real situation is not that we lack the ability to make intelligent choices, it is who is making the intelligent choices.  The troglodytes of extreme wealth may be primitive in their mental stance, but they are far from being unintelligent.  For greatly concentrated power the intelligent choice, the best service of self interest, is the promotion of a general decay that leaves them high and dry, secure in their castles defended by their armored knights and supremely superior to the groveling rabble at the gates.  The primitive human animal lusts for the adoration of a court and impunity of action.  Once you  have nearly everything the only thing left is to see that no one else has anything at all.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lemons Into Lemonade

Fellow workers, Here is the Op Ed piece I worked up. I would appreciate comments, suggestions and discussion and if I get three yeas I will send it off to Missoulian with suggested edits.

Dave Jones

While the global economic meltdown and resulting recession will undoubtedly be a time of challenge and hardship for working citizens all around the world, it also presents opportunities for deep, lasting change not seen for generations. Due to it’s spectacular failure,the very logic of neo-liberalism is being questioned and new models discussed. Issues like fairness and sustainability are rising to the forefront. Here in the US, the country with the most responsibility for precipitating this collapse, the working class also carries a responsibility. It is incumbent on us to see that solutions for recovery go beyond mere re-regulation and involve a fundamental re-ordering of relative power in society. The larger political questions we face are: what form will a rescue take and who will pay for it?

Because the burden for any rescue will fall, as it always does, on the backs of the workers, it is time to make three demands in return. The first is single payer health care for all citizens. For too long the US has lagged behind the rest of the developed world in providing comprehensive care for all its citizens. The second is a public pension system for all. A dignified, secure retirement with defined benefits should await each worker who has contributed. The third demand should be for a jobs creation program directed at building public infrastructure. Creating a green energy system, localized food systems and carbon free methods of transport will both provide jobs and be an investment in the future.

Of course taking advantage of this opportunity for change will depend on citizens’ ability to correctly identify their interests as workers and to mobilize with a unified voice. This is why we see such an aggressive attack on unions by Big Business and the media which serves them as this crisis unfolds. Only through solidarity will we see not just a bailout for financial markets but a re-invigoration of true democracy and a society which works for all of its citizens. Instead of top-down decrees we call for public discussion. It is time for workers to have a say.

Two Rivers Branch IWW

Friday, October 10, 2008

Rupture- Possibility

The economic meltdown has generated responses and analysis from many positions but what do the workers have to say? Hard to tell because there exists no medium for worker opinion to surface into the mainstream. Even twenty years ago labor would at least have had a say in negotiations. Economists such as Walden Bellow have made attempts to go beyond the usual CNN-style simplistic platitudes ( Mainstreet vs Wall Street etc.) and look at underlying causes, the contradictions and limits of capitalism such as over -accumulation and the declining rate of profit. He argues persuasively that such 20th century strategies as globalization, financialization and primitive accumulation (expropriation such as US occupation of Iraqi oilfields) are but symptoms of the historic crisis of capital.

Others, such as Naomi Klien, see this as a classic case of the "Shock Doctrine",a convenient disaster for increasing the neoliberal agenda, and certainly the "bailout" provisions seem to be openings for increasing control and monopoly. But what to make of recent nationalizations of banks and the increasing calls for socialization of institutions? Pundits and politicians assure us that "the American worker" will get us out of this mess by WORKING HARDER and increasing their productivity and the unorganized and disoriented masses do seem vulnerable to this rhetoric of national exceptionalism. Many are caught up in the promises of politicians who have no desire whatsoever to disrupt the current structure of power relations but pander to workers concerns and fears.

This is why a response from those organized in the IWW and other unions is imperative. We need to demand an end to the power of capital to dictate the terms and install worker run and worker controlled institutions and structures. We need to "design political projects that can be called post-neoliberal." While we may not be ready to challenge capitalism directly, we can restore democratically controlled state functions such as the regulatory capacity to curb the barbarity of capital and carry out universally inclusive social policies. By "creating new mechanisms of political participation and redefining the links between the social and the political" we can balance the hegemony of the state through "cohabitation with a sizeable private sector" and with socialized properties taking many forms- cooperatives, worker managed and community owned. We are talking about a unique opportunity to rehabilitate the public domain with the universilization of rights and a thoroughgoing de-marketization. Only we, the workers, can make this happen.

quotes are from an essay by Emir Sader
This post is from Dave Jones (again) aka Troutsky

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Smell of Sulpher

Those of you who read the Sept. IW may have noticed the unsigned opinion piece on page 11 titled Nationalization Controls Venezuelan Workers. And if you know anything about the history and current situation in Venezuela you may, as I certainly did, have problems with the main thesis of the piece and with some of the "facts" as presented. Take for instance this analysis concerning the re- nationalization(and socialization) of many key industries, industries that not so long ago ,in fact, belonged to the people( that is, the State) of Venezuela.

"However,the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the President is worrisome." Well, it would indeed be worrisome were it true, but the fact that many industries and banks are being nationalized does not automatically transfer "economic power" into one mans hands. It should be mentioned that there is also a legislative body, courts, and a huge electorate which share power in a balanced fashion. Witness Chavez's loss at the polls with the last referendum. And his acceptance of that loss. Were he the dictator he is here made out to be would he call for elections on each of these reforms? Does the (unknown) author assume Chavez makes Castro like decisions over every aspect of economic planning or holds personal title to all these industries?

Then there is this observation: "His rhetoric and actions have polarized Venezuela into the unfortunately familiar 'us and them','patriots and traitors' model of social control." Anyone with the slightest historical knowledge would know that Venezuela's "polarization" began in colonial times and is very much a socio-political split between haves and have nots, light and dark skinned, in other words between those who controlled the oil wealth (with the blessing of the USA) and those who were left hungry and illiterate in the barrios and favelas. The flames of polarization are fanned daily by the hard-right and their American allies.

The really troubling aspect of this critique, from a Wobbly point of view, is the analysis of the 2002-3 CVT (oil workers union) strike which was designed to bring down the fledgling Bolivarian Revolution and restore right wing, privitized ownership of the oil sector. This is the authors take:
" The crushing of the strike sent a message to the rest of theVenezuelan working class:be an ally of Chavez or face overwhelming repression."

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to travel to Venezuela with a Witness for Peace delegation and to interview leaders of the CVT as well as academics, human rights activists and other non-partisan observers of the strike and as hard as this might be for the editor of the IW to face, the reality is that sometimes the workers can act in allegiance to reactionary, regressive forces. They may act out of bourgeois self-interest, they may aid in upholding an oppressive regime, they may, like Mr. Block, just be ass kissers for the boss. The cops beating the strikers are workers! What is missing from the article and the authors perspective is any historical context, any mention of CIA involvement in the strike, any mention of the right-wing orchestrated coup attempt just one year before or the atmosphere which led to the strike. What I heard from my conversations with Venezuelans was that the oil workers were a very elite sector,making many times the average wage,and that their union was top-down bureacratic and very much in support of the status quo. Far from a message of fear, what was sent to the working class was a message that a new economic as well as social order was being built, an order which promised a much fairer distribution of wealth for the multitude that had been excluded up till then. What was promised was a revolution which would turn the entire continent upside down, one with a much broader democracy to include indigenous people and those of African descent.

I would hope that our organization would encourage a more nuanced, particular, and historical analysis of current events and not rush to reflexive, doctrinal judgements such as these. What do others think?

Dave Jones aka troutsky

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thoughts from Raoul Vaneigem on the Spectacular-Commodity System

"Haven't you ever felt like flinging your pay check into the face of the pay clerk? In that case, you have realized that:

  1. The wage system reduces the individual to a bookkeeper's digit. From the capitalist point of view, a wage slave is not a man but an index of the overheads of production and a certain degree of purchasing power in terms of consumption.
  2. The wage system is as much the keystone of global exploitation as alienate labor and commodity production are the keys to the spectacle-commodity system. To improve it would be to improve the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeois-bureaucratic class. One can, therefore, only do away with it entirely.
  3. Wage slavery requires that we sacrifice over eight hours of our days for eight hours of work: in return we receive a sum of money which covers only a fraction of the work done. The rest is retained by the employer for his own benefit. In its turn our wage has to be exchanged for polluted, junk products, household goods sold at ten times their real value, alienating gadgets (the car that enables us to get to work and consume, pollute, destroy the countryside, and save some empty time and kill ourselves. Not to mention the dues owing to the State, to experts, and to the trade union racketeers...
  4. Anyone who believes that wage demands can endanger private or State capitalism is mistaken: employers award to their workers only that increase which the unions need if they are to give evidence of their continuing usefulness: and the unions demand of the employers (who can, in any case put up prices) only sums that pose no threat to a system of which they are the greatest beneficiaries but one.
So you see, you have had a bellyful of living most of your life as a function of money and of being reduced to obedience to the dictates of economics, of merely existing and not having the leisure to live life to the full. Already, consciously or otherwise, you are fighting for a reallocation of useful goods which will no longer have anything to do with the pursuit of profits and which will, instead, answer people's real needs."

"Contributions to The Revolutionary Struggle," Raoul Vanegiem

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Look For Me In Butte

One of the reasons for my joining the IWW was to challenge the dominant notion that, to qoute Margaret Thatcher, "There are no alternatives". I find the rigid, thoughtless, conformity of Americans to be a terrifying threat to democracy and justice for workers and so was heartened to find a group willing to step out of the mold and proudly proclaim it's difference. Therefore, when I walked up to the Union Corner in Butte last Friday and saw the IWW banner hanging there and my Fellow Workers wearing the Black and Red, I reflected on just how far we had come in so short a time.

Here was the very "alternative" Margaret said didn't exist! And what a perfect backdrop for our message of worker solidarity to resonate in, Butte America, with both it's historical connections to the IWW and it's present-day economic woes. Due to the predatory, boom and bust nature of advanced capitalism, the boarded up buildings and ever-present "for sale" signs spoke volumes about the struggle the people of this mile-high city face to put food on their tables.And here in the middle of it was a group of folks ready to talk about alternatives, resisting that conformity, unwilling to "go along to get along".

Whether sitting at the table selling shirts and books or sitting listening to the great old songs or just wandering the festival grounds those three days, I was constantly approached by people who wanted to learn more about what we stood for and what I thought and how the world might be changed for the better.People who saw us proudly wearing our Frank Little shirts (fantastic job, Dennis!)were inspired to tell us their stories and talk about unions and think about WORK. One shy young teenager approached me and said he had just started reading about socialism.Another guy came up to say he had seen our booth and gone home to dig up his grandfathers old union card, which he then proudly showed us. As my wife and Vicki were headed for the gospel tent a man called out "hello Sisters" and showed them his IWW pin. All weekend people tapped me on the shoulder and asked me "who was Frank Little?" or said "I didn't know the Wobblies were still around" and were genuinely interested to hear of our activities.One guy even wanted to talk about Gramsci and Guy Debord! (a theory wonks dream come true!) It is because there is a latent but ever-pressing yearning for deep, structural change that working folk are relieved to see we are still around. As the crisis of capitalism worsens (and it is going to worsen),this yearning can be channeled into organized effort if we stay on task, keep improving our own democratic processes and build our capabilities. Keep up the good work, Wobblies!

From Dave

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fire the Boss and Get to Work!

Coordinators, facilitators, and leaders have a tendency to coordinate, facilitate and lead. Well, therein lies a problem. What do we do when we begin to depend on others to ensure that the difficult work of organizing society gets done? Well, do we depend on others? Please note that I'm playing around with self-evident, rhetorical ideas. That is because I'm curious about the quiet manner in which we slip into roles as we organize for a future where we hope to be more relevant. As a Wobbly, I was attracted to the Industrial Workers of the World because I hoped it would give me more power over my own life. In many ways it did, but it hasn't be given to me by the IWW. In the end, I realize I had to become more self-aware, take risks and I had to get the work done instead of waiting for others to do it for me.

My experience with leadership within grassroots organizations has shown me that a tendency in our society is to be "party" but rarely "participant." The "party" version usually comes in the form of donations. That is because members of grassroots groups often assume the work is going to get done by someone. That is because visible leaders, coordinators, and facilitators emerge to reassure us that someone out there is taking care of business. Perhaps a lack of powerful, identifiable leadership helps explain why the Industrial Workers of the World may seem disorganized. However, the IWW intentionally avoids a monolithic directorate...that is because it's up to us to educate ourselves, organize ourselves, and most importantly, to act for ourselves.

So what do we do to address the lack of historical agency prevalent in our society? Someone's got to bring the ideas forward, right? Or do we wait until people can no longer tolerate the way things are to spring forward with an alternative? It would seem to me that waiting would run a massive risk of inviting reactionary ideas to come to the aid of desperate people. But getting motivated, staying motivated despite constant setbacks and disillusionment, and taking a role doesn't have to be someone else's reality. Can't it be our reality too?

Of course, this doesn't mean acting in an individualistic, self-centered manner, but one that honors and respects one's own interest while appreciating that an injury to one is an injury to all. Therefore, collective harmony will more often than not result in individual harmony. How could it not when one appreciates the inter-dependent nature of life?

Another fear that often prevents us from acting, speaking out, etc. is the fear that we don't know what the best course of action is and we fear the judgments of others. The IWW is often dismissed as an irrelevant response to the problems we face, yet something draws us to it. But it is massively important that we move beyond an intuitive sense that the IWW is offering something unique, or something that sounds ideal, and actually study it. We should know what the IWW is trying to do. We should know what the historical basis for its plan is. And, we should agree that, while not perfect, this plan for organizing society is worth our best efforts and continued sacrifice.

Finally, we need to be reassured that the people with whom we are struggling--and taking risks--are people we know and can trust. So working on our personal relationships within our organization becomes tantamount to a genuine, cohesive and solidaritous struggle.

All of that said, we are brought back to the original point of this discussion: what about leaders? I do believe some people sometimes emerge as something we have termed "natural leaders." But why is this? Does this imply that the rest of us are "natural followers"? I'm curious about human history and our limited understanding of human nature. Is it natural for some to lead and others to follow? Or is this the result of thousands of years of human evolution based on the idea that hierarchy is natural? Is there a natural necessity for some to lead and some to follow? Can we imagine and reflect on this concept outside our intuitive reactions to this idea?

I'm not convinced that leadership is natural. And even if it were, is it desirable? Either way, the tasks at hand affect us all and I would think that one would relish the reality that their life is not pre-determined and that one has the opportunity to make their own history and shape their own life and construct their own knowledge. But developing such agency requires taking some risks and realizing that saying we need to work together to accomplish our hopes of a brighter future is much easier than actually picking up the tools and getting to work.

Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, once wrote "Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the Senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom."

I believe one of our amazing unions most fundamental roles is to smash hierarchy! Perhaps even before we talk of tackling capitalism. Of course, we should work on both concomitantly. But I honestly believe capitalism is born from the historical role of domination that springs forth from hierarchy. We must look at our social relationships. We must look at our dominion over nonhuman nature. We must look at our social interactions. We must look at the ease with which we slip into roles that we rarely determine are necessary and ethical.

So let us begin a discussion of the need for each of us to accept our ontological vocation of becoming subjects not subjugated. Let us enjoy the fruits of mutual aid as we become agents in the shaping of our own lives and no longer be the slave objects of the powerful forces to whom we've relinquished our agency. In other words, pick up a machete and start clearing your own path.