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.