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(en) US, Portland, Media: Wobblies Stir New Interest as Union Forges Comeback

From Dan Clore <clore@columbia-center.org>
Date Mon, 4 Nov 2002 03:09:50 -0500 (EST)


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IWW Wobblies of song and legend stir new interest as union
forges comeback after an 80-year lull 

11/03/02

 
Mike Chiappetta, 23, a former Cascadia Forest Alliance
fund-raiser working as a Portland bicycle messenger, got
tired of paychecks that didn't account for his commissions. 

Marcus Tenaglia, 27, who earned $700 a week as a bike
messenger in Philadelphia, found himself struggling to make
rent doing the same job for $200 a week. 

Pete "Lil' Pete" Beaman, 23, conducted market research,
installed fiber-optic lines, cooked in restaurants and
became a bike messenger before arriving at a point "where
this idea of upward mobility, this idea of the American
dream, was really a sham." 

All three shopped among conventional unions to represent
them. But they turned instead to a locally led revival of a
labor movement that promised them a voice in union
decisions, zealous resistance to capitalism and low dues. 

They became Wobblies. 

The Industrial Workers of the World, a union with a colorful
regional history organizing mistreated timber workers and
hobo harvesters in the early 1900s, is making a comeback in
Oregon after 80 years of dormancy.

Its quirky legacy of Marxist ideals and anarchical tactics
has struck a chord with a small but growing group of young,
low-wage service workers who are suspicious of corporate
globalization and traditional labor unions. 

"I don't think people in professions understand what's
occurred amongst the American working class," said Morgan
Miller, 44, co-owner of the worker-owned Red and Black
Coffee Collective and one of the local union's co-founders
and oldest members. 

"I'm hanging out with a bunch of kids, and they have no
options like I did," he said. "The well-paying jobs aren't
out there. There's no way in. And they're mad." 

The IWW is bucking the trend of declining private-sector
union membership. It reopened a Portland union hall on May
Day after a 27-year absence. And it has used sit-ins and
wildcat strikes to organize such unorthodox targets as
nonprofit social-service agencies, a coffee shop and a
Nature's Northwest grocery store. 

But the Wobblies' mixed record of organizing successes, now
as in its heyday in the early 1920s, has prompted critics to
question whether its tactics do more harm than good. 

Merely by organizing, the bike messengers said, they won
wage increases and detailed commission reports from their
employer, Transerv Systems. 

They later failed, however, to win an election to represent
all company workers. By the end of an eight-day strike last
month, Chiappetta, Tenaglia and Beaman had all lost their
jobs. 

Gassen Gutierrez, vice president of Transerv, said the
strike shrank the company's business, and he refused to
credit the union for any changes at the company. 

"I think everybody lost out on this deal," he said. 

The IWW has never aimed to please bosses. 

Founded in 1905 by Eugene Debs and other radical labor
leaders who felt betrayed by conventional unions, the
Wobblies sought to unite the working class, regardless of
trade, to seize control of the workplace. 

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in
common," the union's constitutional preamble reads. "It is
the historic mission of the working class to do away with
capitalism." 

The union found fertile ground in the post-frontier
Northwest, where it organized timber workers toiling in
decrepit logging camps, migrant harvesters, seasonal
construction workers and minorities rejected by larger trade
unions. 

The IWW's wildcat strikes, sabotage, soapbox speeches and
passive resistance eventually sparked a violent response
from government leaders and a patriotic public bracing to
enter World War I. 

Hundreds of Wobblies were jailed; some were shot, tortured
and killed. Their movement subsided in the mid-1920s,
languishing for the rest of the century. 

But even though the Wobblies ceased to be a big factor in
labor relations, other unions adopted their "direct-action"
tactics. 

This fall's 12-day West Coast dockworker lockout was
triggered by an alleged work slowdown by the International
Longshore and Warehouse Union -- a tactic the Wobblies
refined. 

"The longshoremen on the West Coast have shown that there
are creative ways to disrupt the workplace," said Howard
Kimeldorf, chairman of the University of Michigan's
sociology department and author of "Battling for American
Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers and the Making of the Labor
Movement." 

"You can stage slowdowns. You can work to rule. These are
actually Wobbly tactics." 

The movement also survived in its folk songs, and a
rekindling of interest in them helped spark the Portland
resurgence. In 1995, some musicians enchanted by Wobbly
songs hooked up with a group of militant electricians and
persuaded Miller to restart a chapter in Portland. 

Since then, the Wobblies have attracted 240 dues-paying
members in Portland and hundreds of sympathizers and
established the union hall in a former bar on East Burnside
Street. 

The crowd celebrating the opening came from all walks: bike
messengers in baggy shorts, a musician with gray hair, a
social worker in a dress suit, a hair dresser bearing a
full-body tattoo. 

They sang Wobbly songs, drank beer and complained about
bosses. 

The Wobbly Way

Today's Wobblies might not come from logging camps or have
lost fingers in mills. But they've latched onto the union's
rebellious ideals and egalitarian spirit. 

The union's leaders receive no pay. Delegates collect
nominal dues in person rather than via employer payrolls.
They readily help nonpaying members resolve their workplace
concerns. 

Several members jointly operate worker-owned businesses,
including the Back to Back Cafe adjoining the union hall,
the nearby Pleiades Full Service Salon and Stumptown
Printers. 

Many Wobblies hold democratic ideals so dear that they
refused to sit alone for interviews; some declined to be
photographed. 

Well-read members speak eloquently of the union's creed. 

"Where you're most repressed, where you're least in control
of your life, is at work," said Ian Wallace, a 31-year-old
carpenter and branch secretary. "It's the natural place to
rebel." 

Kimeldorf and other scholars said they aren't surprised the
union is making a comeback. Its staunch values of
solidarity, equality and worker empowerment are common in
the anti-globalization movement, which flexed its muscle at
the World Trade Organization protest in Seattle in 1999. 

Wallace estimates 50 IWW members joined the protest. 

"I think now it's beginning to be our time again," said
Alexis Buss, general secretary-treasurer of the union, who
is based at its headquarters in Philadelphia. 

"Business unions have basically failed to come up with any
kind of strategy that understands that labor law is not
going to work for unions or working people trying to get a
better deal," Buss said. "We come up with strategies that
don't rely on the law and don't rely on legal recognition to
win grievances." 

On the strength of the Portland District Council's
organizing drives, the council has become a model for the
union's national membership, about 2,000 strong. 

In August, the Portland council hosted a weekend organizing
retreat for Wobblies in the West. And last weekend, the
union's national office flew Miller to Chicago to stage a
workshop on tactics. 

Employers and labor attorneys have taken note. 

"It appears that the Northwest, and Oregon in particular,
has become the chosen breeding ground for a 'new' kind of
union organizer," attorneys for the Portland law firm
Bullivant Houser Bailey warned clients in a
newsletter. 

"Employers should beware -- the Wobblies are back." 

Targeting Nonprofits

Employers and attorneys who've dealt with the union have
been frustrated by what they consider the IWW's hostile
maneuvers and its time-consuming insistence on negotiating
by committee rather than by individual representatives. 

They said the union creates needless animosity for little
worker gain, and they question why the IWW has aggressively
targeted nonprofits such as the Salvation Army and Janus
Youth Systems, a Portland nonprofit that serves troubled
youths. 

Two years ago, a Wobbly working at Janus told management he
wanted to represent workers at Harry's Mother, Janus'
early-intervention program and emergency shelter for
homeless and runaway youths. 

Janus Executive Director Dennis Morrow said he'd previously
talked with a public employees union about organizing his
workplace, hoping that it could leverage more money from the
state, which has increasingly used outside contracts to save
money. 

"Our workers are being taken advantage of in the way our
system is funded," Morrow said. "There could be a union
strategy that could actually enhance the wages of the people
in this sector."  

"But," he added, "it's not going to happen through the IWW
movement." 

Morrow said union leaders demonized his agency, staged a
sit-in at Janus that required police intervention and
demonstrated outside its law firm, which had members on
Janus' board and provided legal help at reduced fees. 

The union eventually won the right to represent 24 of the
agency's 255 workers, and after a year of negotiating, both
sides agreed to contracts that the union said boosted wages
by $1 an hour. 

Morrow maintains the increase would have happened anyway as
a result of a new contract with Multnomah County. 

He said the new labor contracts limit Janus' flexibility to
deal with workers' personal needs. The agency's annual
worker satisfaction survey recently found that Harry's
Mother was the only Janus program where morale declined, he
said. 

Andrew Altschul, an Janus attorney from Stoel Rives, called
the union's negotiating approach "amateurish." Union members
refused for weeks to designate representatives and rarely
put their positions in writing, he said. 

Altschul also questioned the union's intentions with
nonprofits. 

"Organizing nonprofits makes absolutely no sense," he said.
"Janus doesn't have any money. It's just scraping to provide
as broad a service as it can. It's not like General Motors,
where it's trying to widen its profit margin for
shareholders." 

Miller conceded the union made mistakes with Janus. It since
has replaced the main organizer at Janus, he said. 

"I don't think we did our best," Miller said, "but we were
on a rapid learning curve." 

Union officials said the Wobblies' interest in nonprofits'
employees is as much about working conditions as wages. 

"It's not like the union is trying to put those places out
of business," said Buss, the union's general
secretary-treasurer. "There would not be unions at
nonprofits if nonprofits were run in a more egalitarian
way." 

No Blueprint

The Wobblies' success at Portland-area businesses has
produced equally mixed results. 

Its campaign at Nature's on Southeast Division Street last
year led to the resolution of multiple safety concerns but a
failed representation election. It won an election at The
Daily Grind coffee shop on Hawthorne Boulevard, but
organizing there has since stalled, Miller said. 

On Monday, several bicycle messengers gathered at the union
hall to evaluate their organizing drive at Transerv. 

Beaman, sipping yerba mate tea, blamed the failed
representation election in August on the National Labor
Relations Board. He said the board opened the vote to
include not just Portland-area bike messengers and drivers
but also Transerv's process servers, who deliver court
summonses throughout Oregon. 

Beaman, who normally bikes everywhere, borrowed his
roommate's truck to lobby process servers as far away as
Ashland. 

The union still lost 22-14. 

Before eight bike messengers staged a wildcat strike Oct.
17, they demanded that Transerv provide workers with a
written disciplinary policy. They said management had begun
using previously unenforced safety rules prohibiting riding
on sidewalks or excessive radio chatter to threaten Wobbly
workers' jobs. 

The Wobblies also demanded that three temporary workers, who
they said were hired to break the union, be made permanent. 

Company officials didn't budge. Eight days into the strike,
the union offered an unconditional return to work. 

"It was evident they were willing to drive themselves into
the ground before they'd deal with us," Beaman said. 

Transerv hired back two Wobbly messengers last week and put
three others, including Beaman and Mike Chiappetta, on a
wait list. The three temporary workers were let go. They now
wear Wobbly buttons. 

Gutierrez, vice president of the 17-year-old delivery
service, denied that management targeted Wobblies for
harassment. He countered that aside from the strike, the
Wobblies staged intentional slowdowns to hurt the company
and that they verbally harassed him. 

He also denied that the company gave in to union demands by
providing commission reports, saying it was responding to
discussion at a regularly scheduled employee meeting. 

"This is not a union issue," he said. "They use anything
they can use to kind of rally the troops." 

Beaman and other former Transerv workers promise to take
their cause to other courier companies. 

The district council, meanwhile, continues to host Saturday
afternoon organizing meetings for trade workers. It is also
organizing on new fronts, which it declines to identify. 

Despite some stumblings here, the Wobblies said they are
undeterred. 

"The IWW is great because it doesn't have a blueprint,"
Miller said. "The IWW says, 'We're not sure what the end's
going to look like. All we know is, we know ways throughout
history that will make it better for working people.'" 

Brent Hunsberger: 503-221-8359;
mailto:brenthunsberger@news.oregonian.com

IWW:
http://www.iww.org/

-- 
The Portland Oregonian Business News - BRENT HUNSBERGER


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