by Joe Burns
Many times in discussing labor issues the tendency is to focus on policy issues or major events far removed from the workplace. In Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance, a couple dozen workers from the US, Canada and Great Britain, loosely affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World, seek to turn the conversation in a different direction—to tell stories of work and the workplace. Sometimes they talk about workplace struggles and resistance; sometimes they talk about their jobs and work. There is something refreshing about this approach.
The book contains over thirty chapters with stories ranging from a warehouse worker’s fight against speedup to a clerical worker’s struggle to make her liberal boss at small non-profit understand her class privilege to a liquor store worker’s organizing against sexual harassment. Some of the stories are about organizing campaigns, such as Starbuck workers, others are about personal battles with victories as small as getting workers to celebrate each other’s birthdays over the boss’ objection. All, however, are up close and personal and share a common perspective that talking about time spent at work is important.
One thing that becomes clear from Lines of Work is the difficulty of organizing in the non-union climate in retail or health care. A particularly engaging piece details the intense battle by mostly immigrant nursing assistants to win things such as more manageable workloads at their nursing home. Small victories soon turn into intense defensive battles against repression. In another piece, Starbucks workers tell about stopping a worker from getting fired in a blow-by-blow account of a somewhat bumbled, yet successful, attempt to march on the boss. The boss stumbles on the group’s pre-meeting at a Subway and the workers are forced to improvise. Not all events are so successful; in many of the cases the author quits or gets fired.
I was struck by intensely personal these battles were, and the highs and the lows of the struggle. This perspective is not from the college educated organizers who populate the organizing staff of many unions, but from the workers left behind long after the campaigns are over. One story starts out “I was fired six days before Christmas. I had been expecting it for months. I’d been working to organize my co-workers at my shitty job and my boss had pegged me as a troublemaker.” Although she had known it was coming, and was “steeped in analysis, waging an underground war, almost craving confrontation,” getting fired for allegedly stealing $1.50 left her wondering “how did they manage to reduce me to a trembling pile of tears and panic?”
Lines of Work points to a worker activism centered not in union headquarters or organizing departments but in the workplace. In many ways these stories hearken back to those of 1970s leftists taking working class jobs to transform society and themselves. When I started in the labor movement in the mid-1980s, the tail end of the 70s notions still were around. One came in the labor movement not as a staff member – but by getting a job and becoming a worker and participating in workplace struggles. The fruits of those efforts can be seen in the book, Rebel Rank and File which recounts the many battles of the 1970s working class, often instigated by leftist workers and often in opposition to the union hierarchy.
Of course, with the private sector almost completely de-unionized—only one in twenty private sector workers belong to unions—the path of getting a job in a unionized shop and building a rank and file committee is not the only path for leftist organizers. The stories in Lines of Work are almost all from non-union shops reflecting today’s open shop reality.
Lines of Work teaches us that there is something about workplace struggle and unionism that no labor studies program can teach. The stories are about relations with co-workers and about the alienation and oppression of the non-union workplace. By choice, birth or happenstance the authors of these chapters are working day in and day out. And they are learning as much from their co-workers as they are teaching them. Although written in terms of stories and experiences, the book’s approach offers a different approach to union revival, one deeply rooted in the workplace and rooted in the daily experience of workers.
Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011), which was reviewed on Talking Union by Carl Finamore. Burn’s website is here.
For other articles by Joe Burns on Talking Union, click here.