What is a workplace? Race, workplace struggle, and the IWW

What Makes a Workplace?

by Juicy Parsons, Twin Cities

Factory committees, shop floors, collective bargaining, contracts. What do those words mean to you? Well, it depends on your life experience, of course. To me and other workers in my industry, those words have been associated with folks who have “real jobs.” You see, even though I work a real job in a real industry, all industries are not treated equally.

I work in service industry. Waitress, server, barmaid, it doesn’t matter. In the US, service industry has been set entirely apart from other industries because some of its workers’ income is financially propped up by gratuity, which is outside of the scope of payroll income. This has created legislative gaps, exclusion, infighting, and an overall class structure within service industry that is extremely hard to topple. I’ve been in service industry since I was 15 years old (I’m 31 now, officially half of my life). I’ve only ever worked in one other industry for one year doing print production, and I’ve been trying to leave service industry for years now. I’m also like so many other service industry employees, in that I’m relatively uneducated, have little other job experience, and have developed chronic substance abuse and addiction issues.

This industry is seriously precarious because of the way it’s been deregulated and separated from traditional workplaces. Sure, there are middle and upper class service industry members that make upwards of $30/hr, but that is a small minority of workers, who have the social capital and professionalism to propel them that far. A large section of this industry are members of society that have in many ways been declassed- felons, formerly incarcerated, drug addicted, undocumented immigrants, and sex workers all find meaningful work in my industry. I have been working alongside these people my entire life. What goes unchallenged in this work culture is the lack of healthcare and other benefits, and working for cash, often times entirely “under the table”, which is what allows people with felony convictions and without citizenship documents an opportunity to make a living, but still at the hands of bosses’ discretion and exploitation. To be clear, as a revolutionary, I’m proud that all people can find work here. However, not understanding the nature of our work is what keeps us ignored, uninvited, unprepared, or confused about our seat at the “workplace organizing” table.

Servers and bartenders especially are fed by the bosses this belief that we are our own bosses. The hierarchy of tipped employees creates a fallacious meritocracy. In service industry, those who stand to make the most money must conform to very rigid and colonial standards of professionalism- an idea of course prevalent in most industries. In service industry this is punctuated by the material conditions that less “professional” workers face. The term “last hired, first fired” is especially valid here with regards to black and poc service industry workers. That phrase doesn’t exist in a vacuum, the whole US props itself up on European elite standards of “professionalism”. Those who haven’t mastered the rhetoric, skills, and appearance of a professional face chronic job loss, wage theft, exploitation, and very limited Federal support.

Enter the IWW. I first learned of the IWW when I was a visitor to Occupy (In Minnesota). The encampment was right near where I lived and on my way to and from my job at a downtown Minneapolis bar. I started seeing all the positive changes to society people wanted to make, and started getting more educated about the ruling class and capitalism. These would be my first interactions with serious union members, (despite having been a member of Food and Beverage Local something-or-another at the airport) and the first time I learned about the importance of unions. I still did not entirely understand, as I’ve only been in a union once before in a lineup of at least 12 different service industry jobs. What I did learn about, was the weapon of solidarity of the working class against the ruling class. It was this level of solidarity that I started understanding, especially when “Occupy the Hood” popped up to address the concerns of black people living in the US. Seeing a few IWW members being a part of that conversation around our material disadvantages would stick with me.

I’m also an avid follower of hip-hop feminism, which spoke to feminisms necessary for the poorer, non-educated women and non-binary folks from the ghetto. It addressed concerns ignored largely by white and mainstream feminism, specifically around how society treats people who use sex as work, drug users, and incarcerated people. This fell in line with the life experience I had working in bars, where I valued all these people who I came into contact with. If I had a union of all the people I had worked with, it would be a really colorful one, with lots of immigrants, chronic drug and alcohol users, low-level dealers, lots of women, sex workers of all genders, professional gamblers, students, and a few “working homeless.” (Working homeless is not a “new phenomenon” as some media outlets would have you believe, trust me.) Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was one union that could contain us all??

After Occupy died off, I was reintroduced to the IWW while I was doing prison abolition work. It was in 2014 when I found out the IWW was organizing alongside prisoners, that I started reconnecting with old wobblies that I’d met before. I looked into the ideas of the One Big Union, and found that it was a union with an awesome history of “first”s and “only”s. The thought of a servers- and-bartenders-only union thoroughly disgusted me, as someone who grew up poor and black, the server/bartender class often times represented the “professional” face of the bosses and I’ve come to resent it. I always found more affinity with the back of the house, (cooks, dishwashers, etc) who dealt with similar issues like debt, unstable housing, long public commutes, and living in poorer neighborhoods than those you work in. The only union I’d want would be one that had everyone fighting together. When I learned about the difference between craft unions and the IWW I was interested. Then when someone pointed out to me that there were panhandlers and sex workers encouraged to organize with the IWW, I took out a red card, with the intent of also helping to start an African People’s Caucus that could help other black wobblies develop their political consciousness. I thought this was the only union that had any chance of speaking to the entire working class.

Since joining, I’ve found that a LOT of people- most people, don’t actually do workplace organizing in the IWW. (Burgerville and Stardust Family being very exciting developments) There are a few reasons for this, some that the union are certainly responsible for, but some external factors come into play. One of those factors is the changing nature of “the workplace.” In the last 15 years I’ve seen employment agencies turn into helpless computer labs, apprenticeships have disappeared, factories have closed and given way to part-time work. Black and other economically disadvantaged people are incarcerated at extreme rates. Not only through mass incarceration, complex systems of state supervision and post-carceral labor programs are changing the face of the traditional workplace. Unions are legislatively weak. There are large segments of black working class people in mainstream business unions, but this is no way necessarily translates into workers’ power. Fight for 15 has been promising in developing black class consciousness, especially in fast food, even with its wage-based limitations. It has been one of few union movements in a long time to speak to poorer segments of workers. These are people that rely on a multitude of low-wage unskilled part-time jobs to make a living, and that segment of the population is growing. Traditional workplaces are being uprooted by automation and alternative industries.

Historically, people in non-traditional workplaces have been excluded from most of the union movement, even amidst the reality that non-traditional workers and the unemployed are undeniably a part of the “working class”. What impressed me about the “One Big Union” model is that this could be a place for coordinating many special and excluded sectors of the working class. We’re staring at a future where the working class, especially women and people of color are working part-time, online, domestic, freelance, and in underground economies. A lot of people who look just like me and come from similar neighborhoods make a living buying and selling goods (often times overstock or stolen) online and at flea markets. My longstanding challenge to the IWW is that they continue their historic legacy of opening up organizing efforts to the entire working class. This will take an exceptional level of understanding and consciousness about folks in the lower/lumpen classes.

A few cohesive organizing strategies will have to be developed to deal with the realities that ALL workers face. General Defense Committee work, for example, should absolutely be included in the IWW “workplace organizing” strategy. The reality of our time is that the working class is dealing with a tremendous amount of political violence and social destruction at work and at home. There are online freelancers, programmers, designers, and administrative workers who have to organize against the alt-right and bosses at work every day. I’ll always remember my first Organizer Training 101-during the social mapping exercise I chuckled amusingly as I drew red lines connecting workers with managers who have supplied them with cocaine. My (mostly white, early Twenties) co-workers have been way more agitated around police brutality and Philando Castile than “traditional” workplace grievances. When I consider organizing with service industry workers, the most significant factor I think about is whether people’s struggles with substance abuse or gambling will hinder their organizing, and how to combat this in a serious way.

As much as I’d like to conclude with a fairy-tale ending, it would be premature and unfounded. Various campaigns to include more segments of the “working class” have definitely been met with hostility. Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee is a huge example of how the IWW was able to overcome narrow “workerist” ideology. In fact, economists and workerists rear their heads every so often, claiming that the IWW should adhere to strict and frankly archaic forms of workplace organizing. My biggest concern with this surrounds who will be included and who will be excluded. Will the anti-capitalist “One Big Union” continue that legacy of serious organizing with “non-traditional” workers, or will these workers simply be tolerated for the sake of preserving radical politics on paper? To me it’s up to the membership to decide. However, if we don’t strategize and come up with innovative and clever ways to organize alongside the entire working class, the IWW will be stuck trying to organize on closed factory shop floors

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