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(en) US, Stockton, Media: Here come the Wobblies!

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 14 Jan 2005 08:49:30 +0100 (CET)


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In a labor battle with roots dating back 100 years, independent
truckers and Starbucks employees are now joining the wild and contentious Wobblies.
On a fog-soaked December morning, near an Interstate 5 offramp on
the outskirts of Stockton, about a dozen men huddled in a loose
circle. Some wore the traditional long beards and Sikh turbans of their
native India. The younger men were mostly clean-shaven and sported
brand-name windbreakers. To the north was a truck dealership. To
the south, shrouded in the fog, was a dog-food factory.
The men spoke animatedly in Punjabi and then broke up, shuffling
around the empty lot, talking on cell phones and killing time.

Occasionally, a taller man would call them together again for another
meeting.

This is what a wildcat truckers strike looks like in the Stockton
Valley.

These were independent, short-haul truckers, mostly recent
immigrants from India. Although they own their own trucks and
technically are self-employed, these drivers usually contract
exclusively with one company and depend on that company for all of
their work. In this case, the company is Kach Transportation.

But, for three days in December, none of these drivers hauling for
Kach went to work. And the company couldn't move goods
from the area rail yards to the stores and warehouses in the
surrounding communities, like Stockton, Sacramento, Modesto,
Woodland and points in between.

There were no angry chants or workers marching around with picket
signs. No fiery speeches by bullhorn and no press conference. Just a
bunch of fed-up truckers not going to work. And yet these men are
part of a unique labor tradition dating back a century.

The only real clues linking them to the tradition were a few signs
bearing a slogan from a bygone era--"An injury to one is an
injury to all"--planted in the wet ground around the perimeter
of the lot.

"The company, they won't talk to us at all," the tall
man explained. "We said, 'Come talk to us. You know, we
might let go of a few things, you let go of a few things, and it will
work out.' But they just said no."

Like most of the Kach drivers, he asked SN&R not to print his name,
fearing he would be singled out by employers and not be able to find
work. Indeed, the truckers seemed suspicious of reporters generally
and had made no efforts to contact the press about their spontaneous
strike.

The Kach drivers went on strike December 14, demanding more pay
for rising fuel costs and an end to onerous "wait times,"
during which the drivers must remain idle without pay while their
trucks are loaded or unloaded. It was a small strike but the latest in a
string of labor actions by short-haul truckers in the last year.

The Stockton drivers claim they sparked a wave of
independent-trucker strikes along the West Coast and then across the
country in the spring of 2004. "We were the first. Then
Oakland, then everywhere," the tall man explained. Truckers
as far away as Los Angeles and ultimately Miami and Savannah, Ga.,
tied up ports and railheads with spontaneous work stoppages.

The drivers, whether in Stockton or Seattle, are an important part of
the backbone of the "containerized economy" ferrying
goods from ports and rail yards to your local Costco or Wal-Mart, or
the myriad warehouses and distributors up and down the West Coast.

The loads they haul could be just about any dry goods, from laundry
detergent to toilet paper to children's toys. One load, from
Stockton to Sacramento for example, might net a driver $120. The
truck operators pay for their own insurance, gas and vehicle
maintenance. Often, they are still making payments on their rigs.

By and large, they don't belong to unions.

Or, at least, not the unions you'd expect.

Over the summer, the Kach drivers, and the vast majority of
short-haul truckers in the Stockton Valley, recently joined the
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies.
The union says it has signed up around 220 of the 350 or so
independent truckers working in the area.

Not bad for a union that was considered extinct 10 years ago.

The IWW was founded 100 years ago in 1905. In the 1910s and
1920s, the Wobblies were a fearsome presence in the American labor
movement, representing radical unionism in its most militant and
subversive form. It stood for anti-capitalist revolution and took as its
motto "A world without bosses."

Most of the Sikh truck drivers don't consider themselves
radicals. But they found the Wobblies were the only union that could,
or would, help them. And although trucking companies have refused
to recognize their union, the Wobbly truckers have been busy
building the union, making demands and sometimes winning
concessions.

Most members live in Stockton, Modesto, Sacramento and other
valley towns and drive to work in Stockton. Companies like Kach do
the dispatching, working with brokers and the railroads to arrange
pickups and deliveries. The truckers then drive their rigs to the
Stockton rail yards--the Union Pacific, Santa Fe or Burlington
Northern--pick up their loads and deliver them to stores and
warehouses anywhere within 150 miles of Stockton.

The drivers are overwhelmingly Indian, and many are recent
immigrants. Drivers said this was partly due to the natural networking
that occurs in the local Sikh community, with truckers helping their
friends and family members get into the business. Others said
it's not bad work for immigrants with limited English skills,
because interaction with the public is brief at most.

"Mostly, it's Indian drivers, but we've made some
inroads into the Latino community," explained Harjit Gill, not a
truck driver but a Punjabi-speaking Wobbly organizer from Chico.
"Once we sign [the Latinos] up, we'll have
everybody."

It would be a small campaign for a major union like the Teamsters or
the California Nurses Association. But to the Wobblies in this
country, it's a huge victory. In fact, it is the largest single influx
of new members that the Wobblies have seen in several decades. And
it's a sign that the IWW gradually is shaking the rust out and
becoming something more than an anarchist historical society. And
the Wobblies could become a force to reckon with again. Indeed, in
2001, the nationally known law firm Bullivant Houser Bailey was
warning its clients, "Employers should beware, the Wobblies
are back."

The Stockton truckers' campaign, combined with a small but
steady growth of Wobbly memberships in other communities and a
high-profile attempt to unionize Starbucks coffee shops on the East
Coast, is getting the IWW attention it hasn't seen in years. For
Wobbly organizers, it's a nice way to celebrate turning 100.

But on the fourth day of the Wobblies' Kach strike, it became
clear the company wasn't budging.

"They said they would only talk to us individually, not as a
group," the tall man explained. Rather than submit to
one-on-one meetings with the boss, the Kach truckers decided on a
more Wobbly-esque strategy of dealing with an intractable employer:
They quit hauling for Kach.

"We're going to try our best to put them out of
business," Gill explained. "They don't care about
workers, so we don't care about them."

Kach managers did not return calls from SN&R. Truckers say that on
the day after they stopped work, Kach did offer to negotiate, but the
drivers refused to go back to work, in part to send a message.

"We just told them it was too late. If they're going to
muck about, we can find work somewhere else," said one
driver, who already had lined up a job at another trucking company.

Although the Teamsters voiced support for the spring strikes, the
powerful trucking union--an obvious choice to help truckers looking
for a better deal--did little actual organizing among the Stockton truck
drivers. This is largely because they're independent operators,
and federal law doesn't allow them to join unions.

Twenty years ago, these were union jobs, said Chuck Mack, the
national director of port operations for the International Brotherhood
of Teamsters. "In the '80s, we had the whole Oakland
waterfront organized," Mack explained. But then came the
deregulation movement of the 1980s. Over time, the carrier
companies moved away from employing drivers directly and created a
system of independent contractors.

As a result, the drivers aren't technically employees and no
longer have the same rights to negotiate as a union. As the working
conditions in the trucking industry deteriorated, Mack said, the
workforce changed, drawing much more heavily from ethnic
minorities and immigrants.

The Teamsters are working with these truckers, but "you have
to be very, very careful, or you might run afoul of antitrust
laws," Mack said. Federal laws like the Sherman Anti-Trust
Act prohibit companies from colluding to set prices. That includes
independent business owners and contractors. Conceivably, Mack
said, a trucking company could sue a union of independent truckers
for violating the laws against price fixing.

"It's completely hypocritical," Mack complained.
"That law is over 100 years old. It was intended to protect
workers from the JP Morgans and Rockefellers. Now it's being
used against these immigrant workers who are just scraping
by."

Enter the IWW, with its historic disdain for any federal law it deems
"anti-worker." Gill, then living in Chico, teamed up with
Bay Area IWW organizers Bruce Valde and Adam Welch. After
being invited by a few Sikh truckers who participated in the spring
strikes, the group took a chance and went to Stockton to look into the
possibility of organizing a truckers union.

Soon they had signed up a majority of the Stockton Valley
independent short-haul truckers as members of the IWW. In
September, drivers at Patriot Logistics, by then holding IWW union
cards, held another strike. They said that company officials had
promised them higher pay to make up for increasing gas prices. They
also suspected that the company already was collecting higher rates
from its customers but wasn't passing the increase on to
drivers. "The brokers were paying them, but they weren't
giving it to us," said Patriot driver Dewey Obitinalla. "We
were each losing about $200 a week." They also sought more
pay for that downtime they spent waiting to pick up goods at area rail
yards and warehouses.

After staying off the job for three days (and losing three days'
pay), the drivers say they won about 80 percent of what they
wanted--including a small increase in their basic rates, to cover fuel
costs, and an agreement to increase pay for wait times.

The company, however, refuses to acknowledge that any bargaining
occurred with the IWW. "It simply didn't happen. We
have contracts with individual truck drivers. Those contracts
haven't changed and won't change," said Patriot
Vice President of Marketing John Tucker from his home in Atlanta,
Ga. "We would not sit with a group of drivers and
negotiate," Tucker added. "And we certainly
wouldn't talk to any union people."

But negotiations did occur, the drivers say. They also contend the
manager that negotiated with the drivers no longer works for Patriot
because the man was fired. Although Tucker denied that, he refused
to elaborate, saying it was a private personnel matter.

Patriot drivers say that, whether the company wants to recognize the
union or not, their strike worked.

"It helped. Not a lot, but it helped," said Obitinalla.
"This is really the first time I've seen these kinds of
demands negotiated. In the five years I've been in this
business, my experience is that the managers won't do
anything unless they see this kind of unity."

Not a bad result for the price of IWW dues, which are $6 a month.
"They don't really make you pay it anyway,"
Obitinalla remarked.

Just the mention of the name Industrial Workers of the World today
evokes memories of the early American labor movement in its most
militant, most revolutionary and, in some cases, most terrifying form.

To historians, the IWW means the 1912 strike in Lawrence, Mass.,
when 20,000 textile workers faced down the state's National
Guard, chanting, "We want bread and roses!" Or it
evokes the now-forgotten bombing of the California governor's
mansion in 1917, blamed on the IWW--though the union to this day
disputes the charge. Or the execution of troubadour and IWW
organizer Joe Hill in Utah in 1915. Hill was convicted of shooting a
shop owner to death during a robbery gone bad. Hill and supporters
claimed all along that he was framed and executed only because the
government wanted the radical dead.

Of course, the Wobblies (some say the name comes from the
"wobble saw" used by loggers in the Pacific Northwest at
the turn of the century) also have a history of more joyful forms of
subversion. Many Wobblies were hobos and drifters, riding empty rail
cars for free all over the country. And Wobbly songwriters like Hill
penned popular and irreverent tunes skewering the bosses and
celebrating the working class: songs like "Rebel Girl,"
"Fifty-Thousand Lumberjacks" and "I'm Too
Old to Be a Scab." In California, carrying a copy of the
Wobblies' Little Red Songbook could land you in jail.

The Wobbly leaders of 1905 would become legendary hell-raisers,
leaders like Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood.

Then there's the class of 2005.

"The working class and the employing class still have nothing
in common," explained the smiling Gill, updating the preamble
to the constitution of the IWW, written in Chicago in 1905.

Then, as now, they advocated "anarcho-syndicalism," in
which workers themselves seized the means of production--the
factory works, the sawmill, the city buses--and determined for
themselves how production would be organized and what working
conditions would be.

The Wobblies promoted the idea of the "One Big Union,"
also called industrial unionism. Rather than splitting workers into
trade unions--carpenters, electricians or bricklayers, for example--the
Wobblies insisted that all construction workers struggle together to
change the construction industry.

And they had little patience for union bureaucracy, fussing over
union elections and contracts or asking the government (the National
Labor Relations Board, or NLRB) for the right to negotiate.

Instead, they adopted the slogan "Direct action gets the
goods." Strikes were to be used early and often. "General
strikes" by workers across industries, and hopefully shutting
down a whole city, were even better.

And they had a reputation, not entirely deserved, for industrial
sabotage. Although some workers did go in for destroying company
property, the IWW concept of sabotage tended toward work
slowdowns or "working to rule"--meaning adhering to job
rules so carefully that work grinds to a halt. Still, Wobbly lore is full of
stories of chicanery, of machines mysteriously missing belts or paint
being mixed the wrong color by accident. To this day, the Wobblies
hold dear their mascot, "Sabo Kitty," an angry black cat
with its hair on end, which came to be a symbol for sabotage.

The IWW also became associated, rightly or wrongly, with terrible
violence.

Following the governor's- mansion bombing in 1917, 53
Sacramento Wobblies were jailed, and three of them died in custody.
But many suspected the bombings actually were carried out by
supporters of the local district attorney, Charles Fickert, who had
built his career prosecuting Wobblies.

Fickert also sent the notorious Wobbly leader Tom Mooney to jail for
allegedly tossing a bomb into a San Francisco Preparedness Day
parade, killing 10 people. Again, Mooney's supporters said it
was the work of agents provocateur. Mooney was in fact pardoned in
1938 by Governor Culbert Olson.

At the height of their power before World War I, the Wobblies
boasted more than 100,000 members, who ruled the shipping and
transportation industries. They were the first to advance many causes
of the American labor movement, the first to include people of color
in a union with white workers and the first to fight for the eight-hour
day and the 40-hour week, all things that workers in America came
to take for granted in the late 20th century.

They also were feared and despised by big companies, the U.S.
government and the trade unions of the American Federation of
Labor.

"They were a major threat, because they were so strong in
these key industries, because they were anarchists, and they totally
opposed the war," said Dana Frank, a professor of history at
Merrill College. In 1917 and 1918, more than 2,000 Wobblies were
jailed, many for criticizing the war.

Government crackdowns and mass arrests during World War I
smashed the union, and it never really recovered to its prewar power.
"After that, they really turned into a movement to free political
prisoners," namely their own members, Frank explained. By
1990, some estimates put IWW membership at around 1,000.

But the IWW did survive into the latter 20th century, mostly in leftist
strongholds like the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest.

Then, the IWW organized a big chunk of the city of Berkeley's
curbside recycling program back in 1988. For driver Dominic
Moschella, joining a Wobbly shop was a natural move because he
was attracted to the union's radical politics. But he also was
attracted to the idea of a blue-collar job that paid a decent wage.
"Where else can you work 20 or 24 hours a week and make
$40,000 a year?" he asked.

In 2002, the Wobblies expanded their membership in the recycling
business, organizing the 20-person workforce at Community
Conservation Centers where residential recycling is sorted, by hand,
into paper, plastic and aluminum streams. After joining the
Wobblies, workers there hammered out a contract that increased the
wages slightly and included full medical benefits and paid time off.

The most recent Bay Area victory was at Stonemountain and
Daughter, a fabric shop on Shattuck Avenue. The workers there,
mostly older women who are skilled seamstresses and knitters,
formed a union two years ago. Their main complaints were of
favoritism, a lack of medical benefits and a lack of respect from the
owner.

With organizer Bruce Valde's help, they landed a contract in
the summer of 2004. Starting pay was increased, and a regular raise
schedule was put in place. The company also has made some initial
steps in providing health insurance to its workers.

Whether it's recycling workers or the clerks at the fabric store
or truck drivers in the Stockton Valley, Valde said, the IWW radical
politics take a backseat.

"These people don't care about the ideology,"
Valde explained. "They care about having a decent paycheck
and a decent place to work. And they want somebody to stand up
with them and support them."

The Stockton campaign and the modest gains of shops organized in
Berkeley, Portland, Chicago and other places around the country are
signs of life not seen from the IWW in years.

"There is certainly a level of activity and a sense of our place in
the labor movement that feels very different," said Alexis Buss,
the general secretary treasurer of the IWW, headquartered in
Philadelphia.

She said that the IWW membership has been gaining in steady, small
percentages since the late 1990s. "We just got a big bump this
year because of Stockton," she explained, adding that
donations have been coming in from union members all over the
country to help with the Stockton campaign.

The Wobblies stress that it's the workers, not the IWW
organizers, who call the shots. "If you want to get something
done in your shop, we're here to help. But we follow their
lead," said Berkeley organizer Valde. And though the IWW has
become a full-time job for Valde and the other Bay Area organizers,
they remain unpaid volunteers. Of the 2,000 or so IWW members in
the United States, Buss is the only one who gets a regular paycheck
from the union.

While bottom-up organization is a time-honored Wobbly tradition, so
is being in trouble with the law.

Daniel Gross is one of the main IWW organizers trying to get a union
in Starbucks in New York City. There, workers at one store won the
right to hold a union election from the New York regional office of
the NLRB in the summer of 2004. Even pursuing such an election
was the subject of much debate among the New York Wobblies, and
IWW members around the country, because the union sees the
NLRB as mostly useless.

The point became moot, however, when Starbucks appealed the
approval of the election to the NLRB higher-ups. The Washington
office accepted the appeal, effectively stalling the election for at least
two years.

Daniel Gross and other Starbucks workers protested these tactics
during the Republican National Convention in New York this past
fall. Gross was arrested for blocking the entrance to the store, and
Starbucks decided to press charges. His trial is set to begin January
14. Ironically, Gross still works at the store he was arrested in front
of. His lawyer, Leonard Weinglass--the famous civil-rights attorney
who defended members of the Chicago 8 and Mumia
Abu-Jamal--has described the charges against Gross as
"politically motivated."

He faces up to six months in jail for disorderly conduct and resisting
arrest, though he says his attorney will present plenty of evidence that
he did nothing wrong.

"It's all about chilling our First Amendment rights. I have
no doubt that if I'm convicted, Starbucks will use this to try and
scare workers away from the union," Gross said.

Starbucks spokesperson Audrey Lincoff said that the company had
absolutely nothing to do with Gross' criminal case, noting that
it was the local district attorney--not Starbucks--that brought the
charges against him.

And Lincoff said the company is not anti-union. "We are
pro-partner," Lincoff explained. The company refers to all of its
employees as "partners."

"We don't try to influence their decisions. We do provide
a progressive and flexible work environment for all of our
partners."

But the regional NLRB issued an unfair-labor-practices complaint
against Starbucks last week, accusing the company of trying to
interfere with workers' right to join the union. The complaint
includes allegations that the company interrogated employees about
their support for the union and promised promotions to workers who
withdrew their support for it.

Lincoff wouldn't comment on the complaint, saying Starbucks
was still reviewing it.

With the IWW's striking, romantic symbolism and confrontational
culture, it's not surprising that younger activists would be
attracted to it and would want to dust off the Little Red Songbook and
declare it time to "Fire your boss!"

Gill himself, though only 23, is a veteran of protests against
multinational corporations and liberalized trade rules. He took to the
streets with the Black Bloc anarchists during the biotech conference
in Sacramento in June 2003 and said the World Trade Organization
(WTO) protests in Seattle 1999 were an awakening for him.

Radical unionism is simply an extension of the work he's done
around free trade and multinational corporations. "I know a lot
of people my age who are really conscious of the WTO and [the
North American Free Trade Agreement]. But they're not
standing here in a dirty parking lot" with striking truck drivers,
he explained.

"We're back, but in a totally different way," Gill
said. "I think you're going to see this union go through
something of a transformation. You're going to see younger
people and people of color. And you're going to see a more
community-oriented approach to organizing."

For them, the IWW may be an appealing alternative to a labor
movement that has had the doldrums for two decades.

But just being alternative won't be enough, says Teamster
Chuck Mack. Short-haul truckers, in Stockton and across the
country, need all the help they can get, and the IWW is welcome, he
said. "But I think it's a little simplistic to say that what
they are doing will move the ports and the shippers and get them to
open their wallets." Mack said real improvement of working
conditions for these truckers requires changing the rules. In fact,
Mack testified before a select committee of the California Legislature
on January 7, asking lawmakers to change the rules to allow
independent truckers to bargain as part of a union. "These
[truckers] need help, so whatever works. The IWW is out there doing
the right thing, but I think it's going to take a much broader
coalition," Mack added.

Still, whether it's the WTO or a single trucking company, Gill
puts his faith in direct action.

"Everything in America moves on a truck at some point. An
important part of trying to change the way that trade works is having
the power to stop trade. That's what we did here. We said until
people's rights to survive are adhered to, we're not going
to move things for them."

Stopping trade, backing up demands with economic consequences,
has always been the Wobbly way.

"I'm an anarcho-syndicalist. This is what we do,"
Gill explained. "For me, this is another day at work."
===============================
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