Category Archives: Labor

interview with New River Workers Power on VA Target strike

The following is an interview with New River Workers Power based in Christiansburg, VA. NRWP has helped to organize a strike of Target workers in the New River Valley area with the demand to terminate an abusive supervisor and for recognition from the company. They have already won their first demand. The interview was conducted because the strike raises important questions around the forms of working class organization in general that emerge from the present social condition and their relationship to political organization and should be seen as part and parcel of broader thinking about the strategic and historical context that militants and organizers need to base our activity.

Tell us about Christiansburg, VA. What are the social and political conditions of the town and the general area, e.g. the racial and class composition, how people make ends meet, etc? In what ways have these manifested at the Target at which you are working and how does it reflect or contradict these conditions?

Christiansburg is a relatively small town of 20,000 people. It is located in the Appalachian region of Virginia, and as such it is very white in racial composition – around 93 percent – the next highest racial group is African Americans at 4.8 percent. On a county level the Asian population rivals the African American population at around 4 to 7 percent depending on which source one looks at – this is due to the nearby university, Virginia Tech. Based on census data the workforce is around 50 percent. Virginia Tech is the economic powerhouse of the area and most industries in the area are built around it, including the service sector. The service sector – retail, food, healthcare – is the largest industry in the area. Education workers are the largest single sector at 30 percent. Healthcare is second at 20 percent, but if retail and food are combined it is on par with Healthcare. All other industries are in the single digits in terms of percentages of the workforce in the area. The region is generally conservative, while around Virginia Tech and Blacksburg it is considered more “liberal”. There is an animosity between Blacksburg as a college town and the rest of the county and region. The class divide is also largely reflected in this as well, with the local rich mostly concentrated around Virginia Tech. It’s important to view this area on a county or multi county level to understand the dynamics at play rather than just focusing on Christiansburg. This area is usually referred to as the New River Valley.

21198159_632735200447503_339297900_o

In regards to Target a lot of these facts carry over into the workplace. There is a division among the workers on the basis of age and education. Many younger workers are also going to the local colleges – the nearby Radford University and New River Community College are the more working class colleges – trying to get trained in skilled labor positions, such as nursing. But older workers seem to not have college degrees or are not able to find jobs related to their degrees that might result in higher pay. There also is division on the basis of locals vs non-locals.

Continue reading interview with New River Workers Power on VA Target strike

A Houston Wob’s Reflection on the USW Strike

Unions’ power is in decay and lately have been resorting to more creative methods in order to remain relevant. We’ve seen the Democrats putting their money behind the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Fight For $15 in Houston at the same time attempting to “turn Texas blue.” But this dependency of unions like SEIU and the United Steel Workers (USW) on the Democratic Party means they are severely limited in what they are willing to do in the realm of tactics. This along with union density being sharply in decline, as well as union power being undermined by Right-to-Work spreading to states like Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, means the unions are not up for waging anything close to a class struggle. Instead unions like the USW maintain their position as representing only certain interests and timidly bargaining around them.

Texas, like other Right-to-Work states, has a working class that is almost entirely disconnected with their own fighting traditions. There is no real culture of workers resistance, union or not, nor is there any historical memory of fighting strikes. However, recently in Houston we have seen a few significant developments unfolding in labor starting with the immigrant rights movement and detention center hunger and labor strikes, the Maximus Coffee strike and lockout at the end of 2013, the ongoing Fight For $15 “movement” and its semi-annual spectacles, and the most recent and equally significant, the USW refinery strikes. These developments are very exciting for Houston not simply because of the lack of historical memory of struggle to draw from, but also due to the high density of industry in Houston which is unlike most of the country.  This makes Houston a critical choke point for US capital and thus pivotal for workers struggle nationally. Continue reading A Houston Wob’s Reflection on the USW Strike

Chicago’s SEIU Arrest and the Story of a Stock Photo

by JF

arrest1-320x320The arrest of Jose “Zé” Garcia, May Day 2014.

Details are still emerging from the apparently SEIU-assisted arrests on May Day in Chicago. According to IWW Chicago, marshals from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and staffers of Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) “singled out and physically restrained two activists, leading to their arrests. While the arrests occurred, the marshals attempted to surround and enclose members of the IWW’s Red and Black Brigade contingent of the march, blocking their freedom of movement. The marshals also directed other participants to move past the enclosed contingent, preventing the other marchers from showing solidarity with the arrestees.”

In tandem with this minor scandal, the US labor world is anticipating a series of demonstrations to be held on May 15th, the largest to date for the $15/hr minimum wage movement in the fast food industry, variously titled Fast Food Forward (FFF), and Fight For $15. Accompanying this story on high profile reformist outlets such as Salon is the following dramatic stock photo, credited to the AP, which has appeared more than a few times attached in FFF stories, with little context.

Continue reading Chicago’s SEIU Arrest and the Story of a Stock Photo

Book Review: Lines of Work

by JF

In the introduction to Lines of Work (Black Cat Press 2014), Scott Nappalos places the volume of first-person workplace testimonials, many familiar to readers of Recomposition blog and some previously unpublished, in the tradition of the Johnson Forest Tendency and Stan Weir, whose mid-century accounts of American work located, rather triumphantly, the seeds of a future society in the cooperative productive relations of the present. “Working class experiences of story telling” Nappalos writes “have not been taken seriously enough among those of us who try to organize and build a better society.” And it is not simply the circumstances depicted in Lines of Work which nurture and develop class consciousness, Nappalos maintains, but the experience of story telling itself, and I would add, the experience of reading such captivating stories of everyday hardship, struggle, and above all, faith in the liberatory potential of the working class, no matter how concealed beneath its daily debasement.

From the reader’s standpoint, it is an emotional experience to read these earnest and often unpolished accounts, from such disparate fields as nursing, finance, education, the supposedly extinct North American factory, day labor, and predictably enough, a healthy dose of service work. The pervasive pathos is one of fatigue, bitterness, anger, and oftentimes desperation. Though the authors are primarily politicos ideologically dedicated to workplace organizing, most of the low end jobs, including the worst paying and least rewarding, and almost always in small shops, seem taken out of economic necessity instead of any overarching organizational strategy. The predictable grumbling of Paul Mason’s “graduate with no future” is matched in intensity by the grumbling of stomaches underfed and over-caffeinated. Most notably, a contributor named The Invisible Man, a déclassé college graduate driven to low wage factory work and day labor, plumbs this abject position in a nuanced handling of class, race, and nationality in Canadian society, demonstrating simultaneously the importance of a racial analysis to workplace struggles, and the limits of solidarity based on race and nationality.

On the higher end of the job spectrum, in traditional middle-class bulwarks such a nursing, teaching, and “white collar” office work, the comparatively higher wages bring along endless days of overwork, debilitating stress, and sleep deprivation sufficient to find one dozing off behind the wheel, like P. Barbanegra, whose “Who Dismisses the Teacher?” is a must read for radicals seeking meaningful work in education. And throughout all jobs, the daily perils of sexual harassment, bullying, precarity, time theft, the forfeiture of youth to wage labor, all of which are, on top of it all, met with no little or no mass resistance, are voiced with a sense of despair difficult to exaggerate. When mounted, struggles are isolated, piecemeal, and not the stuff of the labor history their initiators no doubt came up on. Minor victories are briefly savored, as they must be, before the sobering reality of the struggles to be waged kicks in, and often the pink slip is not far behind.

Continue reading Book Review: Lines of Work

The Rise of the Fast Food Worker

The following post was written by U&S’s comrade, Will.

The following piece is predicated on a series of discussions which have already occurred‭:

1‭. ‬“Fast Food Workers Fight for $15 an Hour” – Vice

2‭. “Fast Food Workers Strike:  What Is and What Isn’t the Fight for Fifteen Campaign” – Machete 408

3‭.‬ “Fast Food Strikes to Massively Expand: ‘They’re Thinking Much Bigger'” – Salon

4‭. ‬“Who’s Strike?” – Kasama

5‭. ‬“Venture Syndicalism:  Can Reviving the Strike Revive Mass Unionism?” – Libcom

I am still thinking many things through so at times this piece will be fragmentary and move from place to place‭.  ‬I am trying to use the three volumes of Capital to think through what the fast food industry means in capitalism today‭. ‬I hope that does not distract from my fundamental point‭. ‬I argue that the role of the fast food industry is key in lowering the value of labor power and that revolutionaries should make fast food organizing a central part of their work‭.‬

In Capital‭, ‬Marx writes‭, “…‬the labour-time‭ [‬sic‭] ‬necessary for the production of labour-power‭ [‬sic‭] ‬is the same as that necessary for the production of those means of subsistence in other words‭, ‬the value of labour-power‭ [‬sic‭] ‬is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of its owner‭” (‬274‭).   ‬Furthermore‭, ‬the reproduction of the worker’s family must also be taken into account‭.  ‬Accordingly‭, ‬Marx writes‭, ” ‬The value of labour-power‭ [‬sic‭] ‬was determined‭, ‬not only by the labour-time‭ [‬sic‭] ‬necessary to maintain the individual adult worker‭, ‬but also by that necessary to maintain his family‭” (‬518‭). ‬This passage has three processes happening at the same time‭: ‬the reduction of the means of subsistence‭, ‬the reduction of the labor-time necessary for the production of labor power‭, ‬and the reduction necessary to feed‭, ‬clothe‭, ‬shelter and educate the worker’s family‭.  ‬One of the key means of subsistence in determining the value of labor power is the cost of food‭.  ‬This process did not occur overnight‭.  ‬Loren Goldner describes this process as‭, ‬

By the late 1960s‭, ‬the postwar boom had brought world capital to another‭ ‬moment in which the current cost of reproducing labor power could no‭ ‬ longer serve as the systemic numeraire,س‭ the common denominator‭, ‬for ‬commodity exchange‭. ‬Capital again‭, ‬as in 1914‭ ‬but more diffusely‭, ‬entered a‭ ‬new period in which physical destruction on a world scale was a necessary‭ ‬part of the movement of devalorization and potential revalorization‭.‬ ‭(‬Goldner‭). ‬

This meant the restructuring of capital and labor power‭.  ‬More efficient food production and distribution per calorie were central in the lowering of the value of labor power‭.  ‬As the graph shows‭, ‬there has been a clear and continuous decline in the percentage of food expenditure for U.S‭. ‬households‭. ‬

Continue reading The Rise of the Fast Food Worker

When do we SNAP?: Against Cuts, Low Wages, and Food Stamp Discipline by Florence Johnston Collective

The Florence Johnston Collective is a new group of both U&S and non U&S members in New York City struggling around “reproductive” work; or work that’s primary function is not to make things to be sold, but to take care of the lives of both workers and non-workers in society.  This includes nurses, CNAs, home health aids, teachers, social service workers, nannies, and more, plus custodians, kitchen workers, and other staff who work in healthcare and social services facilities. We are specifically interested in organizing both recipients and providers of care, as these two groups often appear to be in an antagonist relationship with one another, when really both are being destroyed by the same cuts, policies, and bosses.  U&S is happy to re-post the first in a series of longer written articles posted on FJC’s blog, and intended for mass distribution and agitation.  Please see http://florencejohnstoncollective.wordpress.com to find out more.

Introduction

As political campaigns to raise the minimum wage grab headlines, there is a decrease in the federal minimum wage on the horizon that nobody is talking about. The coming reduction in the wage for working class people in the United States, employed and unemployed, will come from a two pronged reduction in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, better known as food stamps. These cuts will affect the 50 million people struggling to feed themselves and their families in the current economic depression. And these nationwide cuts, effecting every recipient, just may provide workers with the broad basis for action against the system that keeps them broke, overworked, and dependent on their boss and the state just to survive.

The state calls food stamps “benefits” and “entitlements”, and tells people they are a privilege, not a right. Some politicians talk about food stamps like they are state sponsored charity. But SNAP benefits are a part of the wage for the lowest strata of the working class. They are the piece of the paycheck necessary to buy food, a piece that the capitalists refuses to pay.

SNAP cuts must be recognized as wage cuts, and fought against by the cooperation of all working class people, no matter whether they receive benefits, and especially by the working class people who work in food stamp and other benefit centers. We need to help build this movement by facilitating these connections, and agitating beyond the reformist lines.

Accordingly we can’t simply defend the program or demand more benefits. The SNAP program itself must be understood as a tool used to discipline the working class. No matter how high they are, these benefits hold a small amount of working class peoples’ wages over their heads to make them dependent, subject them to humiliating privacy violations like drug tests and endless bureaucratic hurdles, and provide a cheap compensation for the loss of real jobs, the ever-diminishing standard of living, and the mass incarceration of tens of millions of Americans. This is why we don’t simply need more food stamps, but the end of the system that makes food stamps necessary to survive

 

snap-monthly-cuts

Continue reading When do we SNAP?: Against Cuts, Low Wages, and Food Stamp Discipline by Florence Johnston Collective

Building a Solidarity Network in Houston

*This post reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Southwest Defense Network as a whole*

Last October, a handful of Unity & Struggle members living in Houston, TX, together with other Houston-based organizers, started a solidarity network, the Southwest Defense Network (SWDN). [1] Since then our work has grown and we have been learning a lot about the economic and political dynamics in the city.

In many ways, Texas (and the South in general) represents a future that the rest of the country is rapidly headed towards. At the same time, the contradictions grow sharper every day, representing a potential for offensive struggles among the working class that have not been seen in other parts of the country in decades. This post is an attempt to pull together an objective picture of what’s happening with the working class in Houston, specifically in the area we are working, and to lay out some of the strategic reasons why we have chosen this as one organizing project among others.

What follows are some basic background notes on the situation that are intended to lay the groundwork for future thinking about the strategic and tactical issues that will be raised in this work.

WELCOME TO HOUSTON, TX

According to most economic reports, Texas is a booming state, among the top in terms of job creation. It has an unemployment level that has consistently been lower than the national average. It is home to some of the most profitable national and multinational corporations. The number of new businesses relocating to or setting up shop in Texas is growing rapidly. It is a vital hub in the manufacture, import/export, warehousing and distribution of commodities. For the last decade, exports from Texas have grown at a faster pace than the rest of the country (its top export markets being Mexico, Canada, China and Brazil). [2]

The population of the state has exploded, growing by over 20% in the last decade alone. The city of Houston has grown by over 1 million people in that same period. Growth among communities of color fuels almost 90% of the state’s growth, and the majority of that is among Latinos. [3] Texas has the 2nd highest overall birth rate in the country but this growth is also happening due to a massive wave of immigration from other U.S. cities and other countries. Between 2000-2010, Harris County (in which Houston is located) had the largest absolute growth of immigrants compared to all other U.S. counties. [4] The majority (61%) came from Central America, with sizable numbers also coming from the Middle East, South/Southeast Asia and Africa.
Continue reading Building a Solidarity Network in Houston

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers for Militants Today

by Semaj and Tyler Zimmerman

We’re reposting an essay written by a couple members of ¡ella pelea!, a group that organized against budget cuts, cuts to ethnic studies, and for open enrollment at UT-Austin from 2009-2011, on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.  It fits in with the broader conversations happening now on the union question, feminism, and the content and methodology of liberation.  We did a study of the League together and wrote this essay to draw lessons for communists and other militants today in the fight against capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the State.  We try to incorporate the best of the League experience while confronting its historical and political weaknesses.

This is the link to the original post.

For reference purposes and to explore past conversations we’ve had here on the League, check out this post from HiFi and the conversation that follows.

 

Introduction

 

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers emerged in Detroit in the late 1960s, a period of growing dissatisfaction with the mainstream integrationist civil rights organizations and the failures of the Democratic Party to address the subjugation of black people in a comprehensive way.  A new movement which came to be known as Black Power or Black Liberation, grew out of these failures and gave birth to a new identity and a number of new mass and revolutionary organizations, one of the most advanced being the Revolutionary Union Movement and the League.

The Black Power movement also conceptualized the oppression of black people domestically within an international context of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.  It looked toward and drew inspiration from the national liberation movements that were happening in Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam as well as the Cultural Revolution in China as a model for what black liberation in the United States could look like.  The League was no exception in this regard.

Catalyzed by the Great Rebellion of 1967, an upheaval of Detroit’s black poor against police brutality, poor living conditions, and limited jobs, the League saw the necessity of organizing black workers.  Formed by a core of organizers who worked in the auto industry, they were also instrumental in organizing the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), in the Dodge Main auto plant and which pushed for addressing atrocious workplace conditions, speed-up, and the extension of the working day as well as their racist implications.  Some DRUM militants were a part of previous civil rights groups but were discontented with the politics and took a more radical political stand that contextualized white supremacy through the framework of capitalist social relations.

Continue reading The League of Revolutionary Black Workers for Militants Today

For Herself, and Therefore, for the Class: Toward a Methodological Feminism

by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman

Recently, Nat Winn, a member of Fire Next Time and Kasama weighed in on a discussion of Marxist-Feminism begun on the FNT blog originally by Ba Jin and ZoRa B’Al Sk’a and with a response by Eve Mitchell of Unity and Struggle.  We welcome the energetic engagement by all parties including those commenting on the Kasama blog on what remains one of the most critical questions of our time: the content and forms of women’s liberation.

The scope of Eve’s response did not go beyond clarifying the relationship between Federici and James, and discussing broadly the Marxist-Feminist methodology, including the Wages for Housework campaign.  Nat has challenged the practical implications of Wages for Housework which is supposedly linked to the political failings of Marxist-Feminism.

What may at first sight appear in Nat’s response as merely strategic difference (for instance, whether or not there should be an emphasis on intervention in struggles around reproductive freedom versus that over domestic and reproductive work), belying it is the crucial question of method that must be unpacked.

In Nat’s comments, we observe an unnecessary antagonism being drawn between two completely valid arenas of struggle; the content and form of reproductive labor on the one side and reproductive freedom on the other (there is no coincidence in the double use of “reproduction” here which we’ll expound further down).  The origin of this antagonism is located between a splitting of the subject and object.  This is done through a dualistic reading of  “economics” and “politics,” or, to use the terms Marx employed in the “Preface” to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, “base” and “superstructure.”  But there is an immanent unity between subject and object as well as between base and superstructure and what Marxism represents is precisely the unification of these categories.  The tragedy of orthodox Marxism is that it represents a reification of them; that is, regarding an abstract duality of the subject and object as a real thing that plays out in the real world in terms of forms of organizing and concrete political orientations.

We’d like to say a little bit about the importance of Marx’s conception of labor and unity of subject-object.  Only then will the political divergences with Nat come into relief.

Marx’s conception of labor and the unity of the subject-object.

Marx’s early philosophical texts directly fleshed out his conception of self-, or life-activity, which later in works like Capital, he discussed simply as “labor.”  In “Estranged Labour,” Marx writes,

“For in the first place labour, life-activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means to satisfying a need — the need to maintain the physical existence.  Yet the productive life is the life of the species.  It is life-engendering life.  The whole character of a species — its species character — is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man’s species character.  Life itself appears only as a means to life.” (76)

Self-activity, or labor, is universal; meaning it exists in all modes of production.  Further, it is defines our humanity. It is the ever-expanding process of satisfying our needs, introducing new needs, and developing new ways of fulfilling our needs.  Labor encompasses everything from our jobs under capitalism to tilling the land under feudalism to creating art and poetry to having sex and raising children.

But labor is not just what we do; it is our ability to choose, reflect upon, and change our labor process.  Labor is our process of changing the external world and our internal selves.  Later in “Estranged Labor,” Marx writes,

“It is just in the working-up of the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being.  This production is his active species life.  Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality.  The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created.  In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.” (77)

Here Marx’s conception of the subject-object becomes clear.  The external physical world is acted upon by humans, (labor is subjective), but the physical world is also an objectification of human labor, or self-activity (labor is objective).

Marx restated this concept in a polemic against the German “materialist” Ludwig Feuerbach.  In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx argues that sensuousness  is not something merely subjective, perceptive, and one-sided, as Feuerbach postulated.  It is also objective and used toward the transformation of the external world.  Human beings are both thinking subjects of the world but also objects of their own creation through labor.  This is what Marx calls the metabolic relationship between man and nature.

Continue reading For Herself, and Therefore, for the Class: Toward a Methodological Feminism

Our Friends With Benefits: On The Union Question

By Jocelyn Cohn of Unity and Struggle and James Frey

Authors’ Note: This piece represents one perspective in Unity and Struggle, and is intended to be part of the ongoing discussion on unions, particularly in response to Advance the Struggle. The authors are concerned with the role of revolutionaries in unions. A second piece will be released by two other Unity and Struggle members in the next week that may represent divergent views from this piece. By posting both pieces, we are hoping to clarify our own positions as well as contribute to the ongoing discussion outside of our organization.

Introduction

As communist workplace organizers serious about praxis, the authors find ourselves debating the strategic importance and political composition of trade unions in the United States. We find what could be called “the union question” to be in fact a number of questions surrounding the composition of capital in general, capital in its in its present incarnation, as well as the composition of trade unions and their relationship to capital and the state. Most immediate to our investigation is the question of how this arrangement can be interpreted by revolutionaries, in the workplace and outside of it. After engaging these questions it is our finding that working explicitly within the existing trade union structure to defend, change, or strengthen them is not a compliment to working toward consolidating class-wide organizations capable of effective revolutionary struggle, but rather that these two objectives stand in irreducible antagonism.

I. The Historical Context

The use of rebellion, for the purpose of developing capital with ‘renewed energy and vitality’ is not new and not confined to women.  For capitalism to co-opt every aspect of struggle, to renew itself with our energy and our vitality, and with the active help of a minority of the exploited, is central to its nature.

Selma James, “Women, the Unions, and Work” 1972

We understand that this debate is re-emerging from the relative torpor it has enjoyed since the 1970s due to the ongoing transformation of the processes of production and reproduction in the United States. This shift is alternatively referred to as “neoliberalism” and “austerity”, but these terms are emblematic of a deep-seated shift in the relations of production, the novelty of which is done no justice by comfortable buzzwords which claim its content as already definable.

Historically speaking, we find the roots of the transformation which comprises our present epoch in the 1950s and 1960s. In this period the state took on the role of regulating the value of labor power through public welfare and unemployment programs which kept unemployed people from uniting with the rest of the working class and allowed for a flexible workforce that could work seasonally and in many jobs, as well as through certain wage and benefit protections provided through Collective Bargaining Agreements and shifts in labor law, which simultaneously coerced workers into de-skilled, repetitive, and unrewarding factory jobs,  and kept a caste of workers slightly above another while styming at least some labor unrest. Most importantly, it kept worker activity contained by union bosses at least as much as by company bosses.
Continue reading Our Friends With Benefits: On The Union Question