Making Rabble Rousing Relevant Again
In recent months, a friend and I have been discussing the possibilities of organizing the adjunct faculty working at the numerous colleges in Vermont. In our discussions, my friend, who is both an adjunct and a labor organizer, has been pushing a model where faculty working at each individual college would organize within the college they worked at. The model I have been leaning towards would have adjuncts organize into a statewide union that set basic requirements for the contracts these workers sign with individual institutions, provided real support to insure those parameters were met and adhered to, and would negotiate for adjuncts as a group with all employing institutions. While the former approach might be a quicker process, it would probably end up being a more difficult one to set up and maintain. After all, since adjuncts often work for two or three different employers each semester (given the low pay rates and insecure nature of the employment), it would be easy for the employing institutions to annul any union efforts by just refusing to hire those adjuncts in said efforts. If the adjuncts organized their union specific to their positions as temporary and independent workers, they could negotiate terms with every employer and thereby avoid most attempts to blacklist those in the union.
The reason I mention these conversations is because they are a great example of the nature of work in the neoliberal capitalist economy of the twenty-first century. It is an economy where employers have the upper hand; a world where salaries, benefits and employment itself is determined almost entirely by the employers and the market they serve. The idea of employer loyalty to its workers—something tenuous in the best of times—is now considered not only out of fashion, but bad business. Unions are usually seen as impediments to progress, if not just plain wrong. This dynamic rules employment in both the public and private sectors and is the result of a number of factors associated with neoliberal capitalism —“free trade agreements,” tax breaks for corporations, the privatization of public services including education, water, energy and even roads, and the domination of the media by a very small number of capitalist entities determined to dominate not only the markets but the very world itself.
In order to survive in the world defined by neoliberal capitalism, workers have slowly come to realize that they must organize in new ways that respond to the new situation. It is this realization that might just prevent the total destruction of worker organizing. A new book edited by Immanuel Ness was published with this in mind. The book, titled New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism, presents several case studies of organizing drives among workers around the world. These case studies explore the shortcomings of bureaucratic unionism not just in its current practice, but in its fundamental understanding of unionism itself. From Russia, to China; from Sweden to Colombia; Minneapolis to London; the stories in these pages are ones almost anyone who has worked in the food industry or on a factory floor can relate to. Petty dictators for bosses, management willing to work for salary just to get a title and a hope for advancement, and workers wanting to organize but afraid of losing their jobs and ending up on the street—this is the situation workers find themselves in.
As the title suggests, there may well be a solution. It is called syndicalism. For those who don’t know what this is, the Concise Encyclopedia defines it as “Movement advocating direct action by the working class to abolish the capitalist order, including the state, and to replace it with a social order based on the syndicat, a free association of self-governing producers.” This is a set of ideas at least as old as industrial capitalism that reached its greatest popularity in the early part of the twentieth century when capital before it was quashed (often violently) across the globe. This book is dedicated to its rebirth. Among syndicalism’s adherents were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies. Indeed, this book includes essays describing two recent Wobbly campaigns: one amongst fast food workers in Minnesota and the other featuring janitorial workers in Britain. Both stories describe a workforce with faith in its power, a determination to win its struggle and optimism based on the facts of their lives and an understanding that by staying united they can make those lives better. Simultaneously, like the rest of the articles in this book, the IWW tales are tempered with an understanding of the real nature of the forces opposed to the workers’ success. Underlying everything is this reality—working people of the world cannot depend on the existing structures to work in their favor. If they don’t wish to be denied justice in the workplace, they must be ready to organize themselves and fight for it.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.