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(en) US, FIREBRAND* #2 - WORKPLACE ORGANIZING - TALKING ABOUT A MILITANT RANK AND FILE MOVEMENT

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 12 Dec 2004 10:04:04 +0100 (CET)


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Firebrand: What is your position at the Parry Center for Children?
Todd: I'm a maintenance worker, which is kinda a catch-all term
for somebody who takes care of the facilities.
This means: I garden, paint, and fix anything if it breaks
and if something goes wrong we're the ones dealing with it.
>>>> I think in these current pre-revolutionary times what I
have seen unions do best is show people how they can
grasp the reigns for themselves and take things into
heir own hands; direct action in it's truest sense.<<<<
Firebrand: In general, what is the purpose of the Parry
Center for Children?
Todd: The Parry Center is a live in center for abused chil-
dren. It's got a campus, a school that's run by Portland
Public Schools. It's got something like 50 beds, a
garden for horticultural therapy, a gym; all kinds of
stuff. It's basically just a small world for these kids
to get away to and rehabilitate themselves with the
assistance of staff.
Firebrand: Right now, what labor conflict is going
on at the Parry Center?
Todd: Where in contract negotiations. The contract
before the contract were working on called for a two
year contract extension.
This means there's a wage freeze-no raises, but everybody
keeps the same benefits. That contract was really screwed
up because it had a draconian labor peace agreement in it
that said no group actions could take place at all, which
included on our own free time after work. Any kind of
leafleting that would portray the company in a negative
light. This is strait jacketing for any kind of direct action.
So, when this contract came up the organizers and the
membership had changed hands. There's a really high
turn over at our work, so the membership will be different
during each contract negotiation. The organizer and mem-
bership were much more active and wanted to get rid of
these things keeping us from doing any kind of direct
action. Management basically called for another three
year wage freeze, and no new economic gains. This con-
stitutes about a five year wage freeze with extremely high
turnover, and lots and lots of injuries due to understaffing.
Literally people getting kicked every day that could be
prevented if there were more staff. Staff are talking about
how they try to relieve negative things but don't get to do
a whole lot of positive work with the children because
they are basically doing triage because there's not enough
workers and cause' the conditions at work are so bad. So
the struggle has just been escalating to make a stand here
because it will only go down hill from here if we don't win
a wage increase or some kind of gain. The union will just
stagnate and people will realize it's not really doing them
any good if we can't learn to fight.
Firebrand: What's SEIU 503's strategy for winning the
contract workers at the Perry Center want?
Todd: Escalation is basically the idea. We had our first
informational picket, which is like a strike but everyone
still works and you go out there and try to inform the pub-
lic and management that were serious about this and why
we're out there. From there it's going to be more informa-
tional pickets, showing up at any fundraisers the Parry
Center has. We haven't really discussed any concrete
actions but the idea is to keep escalating to the point of
striking, if need be. Basically, to make it so that the pub-
lic image of Trillium Family Services, which runs the
Parry Center, is not one of a happy altruistic company
benefiting children, but really one of management gone
wild and kind of loosing sight of the children and
staff. Management spends about three million dollars a
year on capital improvements. Whereas if we're talking
about a three year economic freeze, they're spending
no money on personal improvements or improvement of services.
Firebrand: What sort of input does the rank and file
membership of the union at the Parry Center have in this
contract negotiation?
Todd: At the beginning of the negotiation we sent out a
survey asking people what they thought was most impor-
tant. We use that as our direct guide in negotiations. We
kind of scrapped some things that were important to some
of us but not to everyone. For example, there are some
part time workers, I'm one of them, and we don't have
health insurance. We realized that if we opened up health
insurance for discussion management might cut the health
insurance for everybody. So it was a risk we had to take
by setting aside our interest to go with the ones of every-
body else. Pretty much everyone had a consensus on what
was most important. It kind of came to a point where I
pointed out to other members of the bargaining unit tha
nobody was showing up to any meetings, that nobody was
coming to bargaining. So if we actually had any hope of
winning this we needed member input or the whole cam-
paign would really atrophy. We can't move forward with
direct action if people don't
really know what's going on. So then we held some
meetings at houses.
Basically one meeting where we said this is really
serious and we pulled a significant portion of the membership.
That kind of got everyone motivated and laid the way for this
first informational picket. When we did do the informational
picket almost everybody came out, even if they could only come out on there
breaks if they were working. It got significant numbers of people involved. We
made it clear to the rank and file that we weren't doing
anything as a bargaining unit; it's only the rank and file
who can do anything at all. If the rank and file doesn't do
it, or authorize the bargaining committee to make the
steps needed then we can't do anything. I think that res-
onated with people and they started to take more active
steps.
Firebrand: With your experience at the Parry Center, how
is SEIU structured with paid organizers and the rank and
file members?
Todd: I think there's kind of a common structure but what
I've learned from being a participant in it and going to
their trainings and seeing
other shops is that it's highly decentralized; at
least in practice. There's a central structure but
things vary from local to local and from shop to
shop. At our shop the way it works is there are
open general membership meetings and that's where
all the main voting happens. Theoretically, decision making
lies straight in the hands of the mem bership. The problem
is most people don't come to those meetings, so in fact
the decision making takes place in the hands of the
activists. There's a union organizer who is the main repre-
sentative. We don't really deal with anybody except for the
union organizer. Usually there's a higher up who will
come along during bargaining. Bargaining consists of the
union organizer, his or her supervisor, and the elected bar-
gaining unit members. They get elected at general mem-
bership meetings. Outside of contract negotiations it's
pretty much just direct democracy. I know that in other
unions it's not always so participatory, even if that struc-
tures in place. Sometimes the union organizer just makes
decisions. There's not total oversight into how that
works. For instance another local would raise dues with-
out having a membership vote, which I think actually
violated the constitution of SEIU, so they got taken over
by the international. Our shop works really democratically; I
think this is because of our organizer. If you get a bad
organizer it can go totally in the opposite direction unless
you already have a militant organized membership.
Firebrand: As militant working class rank and file union
activists, what steps do you see needing to be taken to
build a larger militant rank and file?
Todd: Yeah, it's a hard question. I see unions as an edu-
cation process, because the reality of it is you can make
improvements in our class' lives, in the terms of wages,
kind of these short term gains. When it comes down to it
real change probably isn't going to happen in a union due
the stresses put on bargaining and working within these
limited frameworks of getting more wages rather than
restructuring the economy or changing the fundamental
nature of the work. You would need a high level of mili-
tancy. So I think in these current pre-revolutionary times
what I have seen unions do best is show people how they
can grasp the reigns for themselves and take things into
their own hands; direct action in it's truest sense. What I
have tried to do is not just teach my co-workers about
unions and the democratic party are the be all end all, but
also as I get to know people and get closer to them, intro-
duce them to radical unionism and anarchism, presumably
not under those names. At my workplace since it's really
high turnover, what's really positive is you get these peo-
ple who are really dedicated to unions and see how
screwed up management is and then as they leave they
feel a loss cause there not going to be in a union anymore.
You can divert them into these other causes they find ful-
filling and that has actually worked really well. I think
just opening up the dialogue in unions, people are rather
receptive to the ideas of democracy and direct action, and
it just takes bringing those in a subtle way. Just bringing it
up and having people think about it, not being confronta-
tional. There important and initiative ideas I think people
don't normally run into cause we live in such a hierarchical
society.

Firebrand: What are you're thoughts on SEIU's
focus on organizing? Do you think this hinders
building a strong rank and file within existing
SEIU shops?
Todd: I think any way the union movement
grows is probably positive. The only danger is
you don't want massive bureaucracies like the
communist unions of Europe, where they start
to suppress strikes and that kind of
at the Parry Center thing...American unions
are famous for doing those types of things. But when it
comes to organizing I think it probably would be good to
have industrial organizations, which the SEIU is trying to
do. It's trying to set up internationals, organize accross
country to unite working people so that outsourcing and
the race to the bottom gets slowed...I think that's positive
in the sense that once you have those organs, if you organ-
ize rank and file movements within them, or maybe even
apart from them, that's when real change can start to hap-
pen. (If you look at the Italian workers movement in the
1920's or something) If you have these big, massive union
organizations, if we were able to develop a working class
movement therein we could start to restructure the econo-
my and seize power in desirable ways. In terms of the
SEIU it's kinda an uphill battle just in the sense that it
would be contrary to a lot of people's interests even in the
union movement to see a militant rank and file movement
spread on a mass scale. The question is whether the peo-
ple working at the peripheries, who are usually great in
SEIU can overcome the people who have faith and
reliance on the system, who work at the top.
Firebrand: Could you talk about the culture within SEIU,
in regards to it being a service sector union and drastical-
ly different from traditional trades unions?
Todd: I've gotten a taste of this culture from going to
their leadership trainings, which are basically trainings on
how to be a shop steward or organizing a contract. It's
kind of interesting just because it's so diverse. I'm in the
Oregon Public Employee Union, but that constitutes home
care workers, nurses, non-profits, all kinds of shops, it's
really a monthly crew, united in the sense that we're all in
the service industry, but it's a very vague term, it's not
industry in the sense that carpenters. It's kind of nice that
way because when I would meet all these people they
would tell me about things going on at their workplace
and the commonalities and differences were a good edu-
cational process. I think that's one thing the SEIU can
benefit from is having all kinds of different people
informing and cross-pollinating each others labor ideas.
One really great example of that is the department of
health services which decides whether or not a kid comes
to the Parry Center. They are in the same union, SEIU
503, so we have each others backs and that makes the
boss really scared that if were going to go on strike. DHS
is going to say you can't move those kids, which means
they have to stay at the Parry Center, but there is no one
help the kids, so basically the boss would be screwed and
need to sign any contract we asked for. In terms of health
care, it's a real danger. Health care costs are getting out of
control and I think SEIU is going to have to fight much
harder than other unions for it because it represents so
many members and when the boss is bearing this weight,
its gets kind of scary. If you think about restaurants, often
times the boss just can't afford health care, that's the scary
thing. If the profit margin starts getting so low then unions
are gonna find themselves in a real quandary where they
are going to have to take on the system rather than just
individual bosses. SEIU does have a good strategy for
that, and that's going for the industry level. If you do just
hit a shop you can make a shop rather inefficient and just
crumble. If you actually got enough gains for the workers
that you actually deserved perhaps that would make the
business non-competitive. So the business competitors
would drop prices and the business would fail and the
union movement would be crushed in the industry. But if
you hit the whole industry that's when it starts to make
sense because then no shop has any advantage over any
other shop and they all have to treat the workers at the
same standard.
Firebrand: What are you're thoughts on SEIU's strong
endorsement of Kerry? Especially since SEIU represents
a lot of public workers, could you address the relation
between public workers and funding for public workers
jobs coming from the state.
Todd: I think it's really complicated. I used to think it
was simple that unions don't have any business endorsing
or not endorsing political candidates. That unions should
derive all their power from their membership and should-
n't have to grovel with politicos for whatever they need.
And I still believe that to a large extent. Yet, now I've
started to see there's really weird things, like, one of the
SEIU locals in Portland endorsed Francesconi because
he's really close with two of the building owners and
because of that they would be ensure to get a really good
contract for janitors. I argued with a bunch of organizers
about it for a long time but it kinda just made me realize
that sometimes to get direct things that really, really mat-
ter to people, unions do have to make political endorse-
ments or have to establish relationships. It's sketchy, you
know? But the reality is in my industry, social services, all
the funding comes directly from politicians and so having
politicians forcing your bosses to negotiate with you is
incredibly powerful and that's how my union had gone
about doing it. I fell like ideally you wouldn't do any of
that, you wouldn't have to ask for any support from politi-
cians. I'm not totally clear on how I feel about it, because
short of a militant working class movement there are not
too many options for us and I think its one of those 'in the
meantime' things. I don't want to participate in it person-
ally and I want to raise people's consciousness against it,
working to show why it's stupid for unions to engage in
this kind of activity. But in the same vain what I think is
more important is building a mass base that's motivated
and mobilized rather than quibbling over political ideals.
If we spend too much time just being purists people are
going to get left behind because they are not going to have
healthcare. It's about balancing your ideals against the
needs of everyone. There has to be compromise at some
level, just hopefully not at every level.
If we spend too much time
just being purists people are
going to get left behind
because they are not going to
have healthcare. It's about
balancing your ideals against
the needs of
==========================
* The Firebrand Collective identifies itself as anarchist-communist.


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