Saturday, March 22, 2008

Over the past few years the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has experienced significant growth, and today it si very much a functioning union, especially in its heartland, the USA. The following is from their main website, though it originally from the magazine Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (see our links section), and has been published in The Wobbly, the newslatter of the New York City IWW.
Immigrant NY Foodstuffs Workers Organize Industry-Wide IWW Campaign

From the Anarcho Syndicalist Review:
Although the Industrial Workers of the World pioneered industrial unionism 100 years ago, it hasn’t seen a significant organizing drive in the United States for decades—until a recent drive among short-haul truckers on the West Coast and an ongoing campaign by the IWW Food and Allied Workers Union, New York Local I.U. 460/640, to organize food industry workers (the vast majority of them undocumented immigrants) in New York City.

The two-year-old organizing drive has reached about 500 workers in dozens of food industry companies and has significantly improved, directly and indirectly, wages and working conditions across the industry in the New York City area.

Proving wrong those who claim that you can’t build a union with undocumented workers, the IWW has succeeded where traditional unions failed, becoming the only union in the country with 90% undocumented members (more than 70 have joined Local I.U. 460/640).

Although there were serious setbacks and the challenges continue, the following shops were successfully organized in Brooklyn and Queens: HandyFat Trading Corp., Sunrise Plus Corp. (formerly EZ-Supply Co.), Top City Produce, Bread and Company, Amersino, HWH/Dragonland Trading, Wild Edibles, and Giant Big Apple.

The campaign began in August 2005, when IWW New York Local I.U. 460/640 began to organize HandyFat Trading Corp., a 14-worker shop (5 drivers, 9 warehouse workers) in Brooklyn after two undocumented Mexican employees asked for outside help. HandyFat was paying its workers $280 per week for 60-65 hours a week, with no overtime and no benefits of any kind.

What IWW organizers found at HandyFat and the other shops was extensive and longstanding abuse of undocumented workers, primarily from Mexico, who had no recourse due to their legal status and inability to speak English. All of the companies had sweatshop conditions: workers were paid sub-minimum wages with no overtime, no medical insurance or sick days, no safety measures, no vacation time, and verbal abuse from the owners that included constant shouting and racial slurs towards Mexican workers. Top City Produce paid no overtime and sub-minimum wages for 72-hour weeks. But perhaps the worst offender was restaurant supplier HWH/Dragonland Trading, which forced its workers to put in 80-115 hours a week for $4.95/hour, with no overtime pay.

The success of this campaign was based on its tactics and strategies. In addition to traditional IWW organizing techniques, direct actions, and rank-and-file principles, supply-line organizing proved effective, as did a variety of legal tactics.

Supply-line organizing proved successful at a number of shops during the campaign. At the same time the union was organizing a targeted shop, as in the case of HandyFat, it began to gather information on the company’s suppliers and customers with the end of organizing the workers there as well. Then those workers could unite with union workers at the original shop to force their employers to pay legal wages and generally improve their working conditions.

One success that was highly visible in the New York press was the case of Wild Edibles, a high-end retail and wholesale seafood supplier. The IWW organized the workers of one of Wild Edibles’ customers, the upscale restaurant Pastis. As a result, Pastis (which had fired four IWW workers when they filed a lawsuit for back wages) and three other trendy Manhattan restaurants with the same owner stopped using Wild Edibles as their seafood supplier until the conflict with the union was resolved.

Taking legal action was another successful strategy used during the campaign. The use of the legal system in the form of NLRB elections, lawsuits for back wages and the reinstatement of workers fired for organizing, and written agreements was a hotly debated topic within the union. In the past, the IWW had used legal recourse only when it would have an immediate effect, for example, to help workers who had been beaten up by bosses or the police or to spring workers from jail for actions they had taken a part in. But, until this campaign, the union had never before used the legal system as a strategy and tactic.

One of the concerns was that using the legal system could focus the campaign on winning shop elections and relying on government agencies like the NLRB and the courts instead of building shops and training workers for self-management. Another criticism was that filing lawsuits was a waste of time and energy because they often take years to reach a resolution and decisions cannot be relied on. As one member of the campaign, Jim Crutchfield, said, “The state and the law have never been friends of the workers.”

In the end, it was decided that legal tactics could work in the union’s favor if they were never relied upon as a principal organizing tool. For example, winning a shop election and filing a wage and hour lawsuit could serve to intimidate bosses into meeting their workers’ demands for improved conditions on the job.

This proved to be the case in several shops, including HandyFat, which provides a good illustration of how Local Local I.U. 460/640 successfully used the legal system against several of the shops in the campaign.

By September 2005, all nine of HandyFat’s warehouse workers had joined the IWW, making it the first Asian shop ever organized. That November, the HandyFat workers voted to be recognized by the owners and to seek a bargaining agreement. In preparation, I.U. 460/640 organized a solidarity dinner in honor of the workers to request solidarity and support. It was attended by other workers’ organizations and the press.

On the morning of December 5, 2005, the HandyFat workers and their supporters locked arms and marched on the shop to demand minimum wage, time-and a half overtime pay, and the cessation of verbal abuse on the job, as well as National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections. A petition for elections was made to the NLRB by the union that same day, following the wishes of the rank and file.

Recovering from their initial disbelief, the HandyFat bosses went into action. They knew that 9 of its 14 workers had already joined the union and would easily win the NLRB election, so they hired a lawyer who initiated an anti-union campaign, telling the workers that if they joined they would have to pay dues, strikes would cost them money, and joining a union would make their lives harder overall.

But the underhanded tactics did not stop there. HandyFat management also bribed three of the nine union members with free trips to Mexico in exchange for dropping out of the union and voting against it, successfully tipping the balance in favor of the company by decimating the number of unionized workers from nine to six. (Similar illegal tactics were used by the bosses at Amersino, who in March and April 2007 created a ficticious “night shift” of workers to vote against the union during an NLRB-supervised election there.)

In response, the union used a favorite tactic of shop owners against HandyFat: challenging the results of an election by alleging that certain votes were not valid in order to delay the final results with the objective of wearing down the workers and gaining enough time to fire union workers at will for bogus reasons.

By challenging the votes of the three workers who had accepted the trips to Mexico and left the union on the basis that they accepted a bribe, the union forced the election into a hearing with the NLRB. The NLRB decision stated that, although there was bribery involved, those 3 workers’ votes were valid. Nevertheless, the tactic was successful: the delays had cost HandyFat enough money and aggravation to make it willing to negotiate a non-recognition agreement with the union even though it officially lost the election because of the NLRB decision on the challenged votes. (Billy Randel, one of the IWW organizers, pointed out that, although written agreements were executed with some of the shops during the campaign, the union always retained the power to carry out direct actions against the employer.)

The non-recognition minority contract that was reached by the end of 2005 with HandyFat included the following terms:
*Wages increased to $7.50 (above minimum wage), then to $8
*A two-step grievance procedure that required resolution of issues directly between workers and bosses—no arbitration. If no resolution could be found, the union reserved the right to use economic force (slowdowns, strikes, other forms of direct action) against the owners.
*May Day and 5 other paid holidays
*Paid vacation days and a number of sick days
*Production bonuses for workers when unloading certain types of products (for example, loads that weighed more than 100 lbs.)
*Respectful treatment of workers

During 2006, four more warehouses were organized in Queens and Brooklyn, and collective bargaining agreements similar to HandyFat’s were reached at Sunrise Plus/E-Z Supply, Big Apple, and Top City Produce. At Sunrise Plus/EZ-Supply, workers won an NLRB-supervised election in February 2006, and in November worked out a tentative contract that provided two weeks of paid vacation, paid breaks, sick days and 60-cent raises every six months.

Things were going well at HandyFat, too, with bosses honoring the agreement with their workers. Then, in early January 2006, what’s come to be known in IWW circles as “The Massacre” happened. In what is believed to be a concerted move to break the union, HandyFat and Sunrise Plus/E-Z Supply fired all of its union workers. Most of those workers had been employed at their companies for years. Twenty-one IWW members lost their jobs.

The bosses’ purported reason to get rid of “troublemaker” workers was to demand legal working papers even though the law states that they must request that documentation within 72 hours of employment. In a clear attempt to break the union, when the workers could not produce the work permits, they were fired.

“The employers thought it was going to kill the union, but putting 21 workers out of work didn’t stop us,” said Stephanie Basile, one of the IWW members involved in the campaign, adding that Local I.U. 460/640 was financially able to help the workers survive during that period. “We got a lot of support from other IWW locals, benefit shows, and individuals” who helped raise funds to pay for the workers’ food, rent, etc. In total, the IWW spent more than $20,000 to keep the workers afloat while they awaited decisions on wrongful dismissal suits they filed with the New York State Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Labor.

HandyFat workers had also sought back wages through the legal system, as did IWW workers in a number of other shops. Class-action lawsuits were filed by IWW workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York state labor law against the following companies:
*Bread & Co. – a settlement of $7,000-$10,000 was reached
*Sunrise Plus/E-Z Supply – a settlement of $25-$35,000 was reached through the Department of Labor, and a $1.2 million suit is ongoing for the rest of the back wages that are owed to the workers
*Giant Big Apple – a $2.2 million suit was filed on behalf of about 20 workers
*HandyFat – a $600,000 suit was filed on behalf of 6 fired workers
*Amersino – an $810,000 suit was filed on behalf of 5 fired workers
Almost all of the fired workers have found new jobs as they await decisions on reinstatement, and the NLRB and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating the companies’ illegal requests for working papers and subsequent firings.

In September 2007, a New York NLRB judge ruled for reinstatement of the six fired HandyFat workers, but the Washington, D.C. branch of the NLRB appealed its own ruling and the workers were not reinstated, proving that legal tactics cannot be relied upon in any significant way.

The NLRB trial for the Sunrise Plus/EZ-Supply firings took place in the summer and fall of 2007. A decision is expected in spring 2008.

Workers at other shops, including Amersino, Wild Edibles, and Flaum Appetizing, are continuing to organize, and five new shops were organized during a summer 2007 drive.

Overall, the results of this ongoing campaign have been impressive. After 10 strikes, dozens of pickets and demonstrations, and a number of marches, all of the targeted shops are compliant with the minimum wage law ($7.15/hr. as of January 2007), pay time-and-a-half for overtime, and have agreed to vacation and sick days. Several even pay higher rates than the minimum wage.

One of the IWW workers fired from Amersino, Eliezer Maca, says losing his job has been worth it. “Some workers are afraid of losing their jobs if they organize, but we have to do it. We have achieved major changes in many companies and have helped many workers and their families.”


libertyisfreedom said...

Can you show me an example of a successful business that is run in the manner that you would find acceptable. That is I assume as a democratic anarchy? How would this look? Would the workers be required to put money into the business if it had poor earnings, and needed money to pay vendors? I just want to understand. Can you help me out?

mollymew said...

Yes, I can. To the tune of 100s of thousands. EVERY producers' coop in the world is such an example. The governance of such coops varies from country to country and even from individual example to another. What you are searching for is the extent of liability, and this also varies. Most coops operate under the same idea of limited liability as any other coporate entity does. Members are ONLY responsible for the assets owned by the coop and are not individually responsible for any further debts. Should the members decide to expand this responsibility is the decision of the membership, but there are few examples in the world where "total liability" down to one's last personal asset has been adopted. I doubt if it ever would be adopted except in a very tiny number of cases. The concept is the same as with consumers' coops. I am a member of four of these, and my liability is restricted to the assets of said coop. Nobody can come after my house because one of these institutions goes belly-up.
I think your problem is that you see the word "anarchism" and assume some overwhelming change in everything and everybody. Some anarchists do indeed think in these terms. Some, such as the primitivists, insurrectionists and so-called post-leftists in the USA quite DELIBERATELY make whatever final goal they say they want as so different, so vague, so outré and finally so repulsive that there are not just questions of "whether it would work" but even what it actually means besides the desire to show off and appear rrrrrradical.
Others, such as Molly, believe that anarchism has a role in the here and now and is not some abstract utopia. We believe that the libertarian society already exists in embyro and that our task is to expand its boundaries. The expansion of producers' coops is ONE aspect of this.
I don't know if this answers your question or not. What I want to make plain is that 1)anarchism is NOT bound up with some apocalyptic vision borrrowed from the Church- it involves numerous small struggles that are the very heart and soul of anarchism. 2)The "anarchist society" already exists. All that is necessary is to exapnd it.