Workplace>> The Precarious Revolt
The history of the working class is a history of remarkable innovation and constant renewal. Whenever the bosses think they have buried forever the threat of workers' revolt, workers find, time and again, the means to fight back. Today, the recent blooming of resistance among workers in the low-wage service-sector is one important sign of a renewed struggle against the bosses and their system, writes Lucian.
For decades companies in the service-sector, whether they be giants such as Wal-Mart or smaller locally-owned businesses, have been able to hyper-exploit workers imposing low-wages, irregular schedules, temporary work, unsafe working conditions, harassment and discrimination while racking in super-profits.
While workers have always resisted in many small individual ways (e.g. calling in sick, small acts of re-appropriation/theft) the lack of collective, open resistance has allowed the bosses to gain the upper-hand.
The lack of open resistance has many reasons. Many of the workers who make up the service-sector belong to groups of people, such as women and newly-arrived immigrants, who historically were largely excluded from the traditional labour movement.
Further, the service-sector itself emerged in part as an attack on the traditional factory-based workers' movement, as manufacturing jobs were moved overseas and replaced with low-wage, unorganized service jobs. Service-sector jobs are organized in such a way as to fragment and isolate workers from each other, which works against the repeat of the unity that emerged among factory workers working together in large numbers under one roof. Production is now organized in networks of small units linked but physically separate from each, other and irregular hours fragment workers across space and time. In other words the very structure of the service-sector is designed to weaken the ability of workers to fight back.
To all of this must be added the failure of the official workers' movement, the mainstream unions. With some exceptions, lost in a self-constructed maze of bureaucracy, legal proceedings, outdated ways of struggle, cooperation with the bosses and top-down forms of organization, the mainstream unions have been unable to offer service-sector workers forms of struggle adequate to their situation. More often the official labour movement has deemed most service-sector jobs as not worth the dues and/or unorganizable. In other words, they blame their own failures to innovate on the workers!
Thankfully, as is often the case, workers have not sat idly by waiting for the professionals of the official labour movement to come up with solutions. Workers are constantly finding new ways to fight back. From the multitude of lunch-break conversations and minor resistances, covert or open individual resistance, repeated instances of solidarity and isolated moments of collective revolt, there eventually emerge new forms of struggle and alternatives. A popular, collective research project with a historic record of success! We have seen this process take shape over the past decade as resistance to neoliberalism has emerged from a multitude of places and peoples, increasingly connected to each other. And it is becoming clearer that workers in the low-wage service-sector are increasingly joining the fight. The following two examples highlight some these innovative struggles.
AGAINST THE BOSSES' DIVISIONS, ORGANIZING GEOGRAPHICALLY: THE SOUTH STREET WORKERS UNION
Beginning in August 2003, the Philadelphia-based and Industrial Workers of the World-affiliated South Street Workers Union has been organizing retail and restaurant workers on South Street, the city's largest shopping and restaurant district.
The South Street Workers Union, like all IWW locals, uses a model of organizing called “solidarity unionism” that is radically different from traditional union organizing. Instead of fighting for contracts and legal certification on a per-workplace basis, the goal is to build “one big union” for all South Street workers based on radical democracy. Workers join regardless of where they work and even if they are currently in-between jobs, as is so often the case in the restaurant and retail sectors. Workers join on an individual basis so that a majority of workers per workplace is not needed. Once a sufficient number of workers have joined, the union then takes direct action on specific grievances and provides much-needed services.
Since its founding the South Street Workers Union has won workers unpaid wages, defended workers who were threatened with dismissal and even deportation, improved working conditions and organized a campaign for cheap public transport with the slogan, “Raise our wages, not the fares!.” The South Street Workers Union has also provided a variety of badly-needed services including setting up health, tax and workers' rights clinics. And it has managed to do all this without bureaucracy, long legal entanglements and with low dues ranging from $1.50 to $4.50 per week.
The South Street Workers Union is part of a larger revival of the IWW perhaps highlighted most recently by their successful organization of Starbucks workers union in New York and other major US cities. It seems that the IWW's radical democracy, direct action and its “one big union” approach has struck a cord with workers in the low-wage service sector. The result appears to be a promising coming together of the IWW's long-standing radical politics and a renewed workers resistance from below. The IWW has several Canadian locals including in Ottawa and Toronto.
A NEIGHBOURHOOD FIGHTS BACK!
The 2006 protests led by Latino immigrants in the US caught everyone by surprise with their scope and militancy. The biggest protests in US history took on the form of a general strike as millions of immigrants and allies walked off the job and out of classrooms across the US. More than a demand for citizenship rights, the protests are a major revolt against the low-wage, no-rights economy.
The two are intimately intertwined. The bosses have two options: they move jobs to low-wage areas of the world or, when moving jobs is not an option as in much of the low-wage service-sector (hard to provide “service with a smile” from 1,000 miles away) they bring low-wage workers to where the jobs are.. For this second option to work, the bosses need draconian immigration laws that ensure a large portion of workers have little to no legal rights and that the threat of deportation always hangs over their heads. Act up, demand a living wage, organize and we'll call in the immigration officers to send you packing! As a result, as in Canada, in the US a huge portion of precarious workers are immigrants. Thus when millions of immigrants took to US streets they were expressing not only their anger at proposed immigration laws but also expressing their refusal of being forced into a lifetime of hyper-exploitation.
At the heart of this radical movement are a multitude of grassroots community organizations who have for years been laying the ground work for what might be called the American Spring. One such organization is the Despierta Bushwick or the Awake Bushwick coalition.
Bushwick is an impoverished Brooklyn, NY neighbourhood. The vast majority of residents are hispanic or black and the vast majority of them work in low-wage service jobs when there are jobs at all. For years they have suffered from illegal labour practices such as sub-minimum wages, arbitrary firings, unpaid overtime and racism and sexism on the job.
In response, in late 2004 the community organization Make the Road by Walking launched the Awake Bushwick campaign. It was soon joined by other local organizations such as tenant committees, churches and by two unions, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and the IWW.
Using a mix of tactics such as community boycotts, direct action, legal action, solidarity unionism as well as single-workplace organizing, the Awake Bushwick campaign has indeed awakened the neighbourhood, mobilizing it against local bosses with tremendous success. The campaign has won hundreds of thousands of unpaid wages for hundreds of workers at several local stores rectifying years of sub-minimum wages and unpaid overtime. At one store, the campaign won back wages for 95 workers. They have also organized unions and won contracts at more than a dozen stores including all ten Footco USA stores winning pay raises, vacations and sick days, health insurance and workers' discounts.
Out of fear of becoming the next targets of the campaign, many local bosses have raised wages and ended a number illegal labour practices on their own. As always, it is our initiative that makes the supposedly impossible possible. And these examples are only a small sample of similar small and large uprisings taking place in the global service sector.