the longtime absence of a sustained rank-and-file labor movement in the US has left the current generation of shop-floor, rank-and-file labor militants without any institutional means to learn the skills we’ll need to build strong workplace organizations. the folks here at Gathering Forces have turned to the writings of Stan Weir and the Sojourner Truth Organization‘s Workplace Papers among other places for insights and lessons from the last generation’s experience of on the job organizing that help explain important workplace and social dynamics.
the following is an attempt to share what i’ve learned from a recent workplace struggle at my job in the hopes that our generation can begin again to build our own archive of experiences, and so that every militant worker won’t have to repeat the same mistakes and learn the same lessons again and again.
i’m a school bus driver for a small company that contracts drivers out to a few different charter and private schools. we work a split shift – two 2 hour shifts per day Monday through Friday, and for the school that i drive for, every other Saturday as well. no matter how many hours we work per day, we are guaranteed to be paid for at least five, as long we show up to both shifts. the split shift makes it extremely difficult for us to find a second jobs because our second shift is right in the middle of a regular shift at a regular 8-hour day job.
the company i work for is an extremely low-budget and small operation. our office is a cargo container that you would see being unloaded off of a large transport ship at any major port. other than that the only thing you see when you pull into work is a parking lot filled with school buses. this is important because the company i work for was able to secure the contracts with the schools by offering a bid that was well below the average.
for the drivers this has meant a number of abuses: a lack of tools and parts for repairs and safety standards; late paychecks and late overtime payments; and the boss has even shaved hours off of people’s time sheets without explanation or warning. a new person was the victim of this, it seems, every other week. i also want to mention that the boss is hardly ever there. we saw her maybe once every two weeks.
two weeks ago, payday came and our checks were not there. the last time this happened there were grumblings by workers that they would not show up to work the next day. but the boss was actually there last time, and she threatened to fire anyone who didn’t show up. the drivers were eventually paid — late — but no on-the-job action was taken. this time, however, the mood was different. all the driver showed up after there last shift and there was a note on the door saying that the paychecks had not come in. one of the drivers was on speakerphone with our dispatch manager trying to figure out the details.
our dispatch manager, it should be noted, really does nothing more than coordinate the routes and drivers, and acts as a line of communication between the boss and the rest of us. he has also been abused by the company, and socially carries himself as one of the drivers. he tries to maintain a hands off approach as long as the driver do their job. if push came to shove, though, i believe he would try to enforce workplace discipline. he did, however, unofficially advise us not to drive the next day.
when i pulled into the yard after my route, folks were pissed off! at several points drivers started to storm off without any clean decision among themselves and the drivers as a whole what we would do. i found myself in a position where the hardest thing to do was make sure no one left before we came to a decision as to whether we would drive the next morning. a number of times i had to pull drivers back to the group and explain if one person decides not to drive, and everyone else does, that driver will be fired and nothing will be gained. at the moment social cohesiveness and worker solidarity was a very fragile thing. my job was to make sure everyone was on the same page and hold that cohesion.
i think this is a challenge that labor militants will face in unorganized shops, and at workplaces were labor activity is considered the domain of the union bureaucracy and not rank-and-file self-activity. many workers are going to have to learn how to tackle crises like these in a more efficient manner. second, i think it’s an issue of how organized sectors of the workplace communicate and coordinate with unorganized sectors of the same workplace. also, i think there are certain dynamics unique to what Stan Weir called the ‘informal workgroup’ which are different from more formalized institutions and organizations. the informal workgroup doesn’t have defined membership standards, or regularly scheduled meetings in which agenda items are listed and checked off in a rationalized process. the informal workgroup is a product of self-organization on the part of the workers in order to fight the bosses, but it is structured around the culture of the workplace — the jokes we tell, the places we go to sneak a cigarette break — and the personal relationships between the workers.
the second obstacle i ran up against was the unwillingness to socialize the struggle. in my head the greatest point of weakness of our boss was the school’s ability to put pressure on the company. specifically, i wanted to drive the next day and give flyers to the kids to take home to their parents explaining that the children were important to us, but we would not work for free. we would be stronger if we could get the parents to put pressure on the school, and therefore on the company. we needed to build connections between the community and the workplace, but none of the drivers wanted to do this. the specific reasons given were weak arguments. broadly, though, i think they pointed to issues of individualism, an unfounded faith in the official procedures of grievance, and a lack of self-confidence that we could build something ourselves without the bosses or the school bureaucracy. two of the drivers led the opposition to this idea, while the other drivers either fell behind them or did not feel confident about building consensus for the plan, even though they may have agreed.
we eventually decided to drive the next morning because the school officials agreed to sit down with us after our morning routes, even though no one had heard from the company boss. the school system agreed to write us checks directly and subtract that from the fees they paid our company. the sad part is that the anger and militancy on display the day before was bottled up. we agreed to give the school another 24 hours to pay us, but after the meeting there was still a sense of defeat. the drivers had felt that enough was enough, and that it was time to do something, but instead we waited even longer for what was promised to us under bourgeois standards of fairness. you could see the defeat in the walk, and on the faces of many of the drivers after the meeting. one driver remarked after the meeting as we made eye contact, “well, i trust them,” referring to the school officials. but i wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince me or himself.
the drivers at the school i drive for have been paid, and the driver of another school has been paid also, but there are two drivers for another school that have not. their school administrators refuse to give them paychecks and our boss keeps telling them they will be paid “tomorrow.” one of the drivers has refused to drive even though he shows up to work everyday, while the other one continues to drive her route. it will be difficult to build workplace consensus about supporting those drivers. some have intimated that their struggle is over because they have received their paycheck, while others are upset and concerned with the situation, but only by acting together or building a sizable minority can an on-the-job action pressure the schools and the bosses to hand over the checks.
2 thoughts on “Lessons from Workplace Organizing”
“but i wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince me or himself.” Very poignant.
In my experience in call centers, one challenge to organizing efforts is the “this ain’t permanent” way in which workers sometimes look at their job. For a while I worked for an airline call center, where the starting wage was barely above minimum wage, so for most people who worked this was their second job. Others were retired and worked there for the travel benefits or to supplement their retirement. I worked the night shift and a good chunk of workers on that shift were also young mothers who needed a night shift gig so they could be around their kids in the daytime, were part-time students who worked to pay tuition, or were folks who had immigrated to the U.S. and depended on the travel benefits so they could visit family back home wherever home was (by travel benefits I mean free flights that all employees were “entitled” to).
So people had different reasons for taking the job but the one thing that crossed those different lines was that almost everyone saw this job as temporary. It was temporary until they could find a higher paying job elsewhere; until their partner/husband could find a better paying job; until they got their degree; until their family members migrated here. Pretty much everybody hated the job but when grievances piled up and I would suggest doing something about it, a lot of folks would be like, fuck it, I don’t care about this job.
They didn’t see themselves invested in this “temporary” job enough to fight and would instead walk away resolved to try to find another job, only to feel demoralized cuz there were no better jobs out there for them. That was the tragic irony of the situation – everyone said it was a temporary gig when in reality it was a snapshot of the what the rest of their lives were gonna be like, whether or not they stayed with this particular company or worked in a call center somewhere else.
I say all that to make a connection to an important point that you raise about the bus drivers – that their unwillingness to socialize the struggle points to “issues of individualism…and a lack of self-confidence that we could build something ourselves without the bosses…”
My co-workers at the airline were focused on how they could get themselves out of that job, so fuck the rest. There wasn’t a generalized sense of something Stan Weir talks about in his pamphlet “Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job” – that you should never walk away from a beef on the job. Cuz if you do, you leave it for the next crew, the next shift, the next set of newly hired employees replacing you, you leave it for them to deal with it; and they will be at a disadvantage cuz management will know the history of the beef but they won’t.
the casualization of work has many dimensions. the bosses made workers temporary and more and more jobs part-time. this last point can be taken in a number of ways. on the one hand many jobs are only part-time — that is they are less than 40 hours per week. but many people have 40 hour/week jobs plus an additional part-time job because wages have been driven down so much.
what were once considered full-time jobs are now part-time in real terms. all of this is, of course, also related to the decline of union density, and the defeat/retreat of the unions in general.
there is a dialectical relationship between this material reality of casualized work and the attitude of the workers towards their jobs. in the past because of a relatively low unemployment, and a the availability of credit many working class folks could work one or two jobs, and with credit afford certain material necessities and comforts. if we could find other jobs, or just live off credit our livelihoods didn’t depend on any one workplace, hence the casualized attitude.
all that has changed now. the other drivers at my workplace are putting up with the alienation and abuse because, as some have explicitly said, ” these days it’s hard to find a job.”
more people are slowly starting understand this, but even at my workplace not everyone has come to this realization.
with nowhere else to turn to, the working class is going to have start asking ourselves are we going stand and fight, or lay down and die.