(ENG) REFUSAL OF WORK

curtis price (cansv@igc.apc.org)
Tue, 23 Jan 1996 00:22:46 +0000


THE REFUSAL TO WORK IN THE NINETIES

In an exchange published in FIFTH ESTATE in the late
70's, Charles Reeve, (1) criticizing many of the arguments
raised in the original article by John Zerzan ("Organized
Labor vs. the Revolt Against Work" )(2) pointed out what he
felt was a fatal flaw underlying Zerzan's statements on the
subject. Reeve stated the "revolt against work" was merely a
temporary phenomenon that would collapse in the face of
rising unemployment and a decrease in the "social wage."
So what has happened in the intervening years? Is it
true that the "revolt against work" was just a passing and
possibly superficial impressionistic reaction to what was
undoubtedly a wave of confidence and militancy then sweeping
American workers?
Certainly, in one sense, the tendencies Reeve described
have occurred - with a vengeance. For many people in the U.S.
, Great Britain and elsewhere, todays real choice is no
longer between being denied a promotion into the office from
the assembly line because of your "bad attitude" or being
stuck in the grind for the rest of your working life but
between sleeping in a door way and a part-time minimum wage
job. The collective tendencies toward absenteeism and
sabotage (broadly defined) no longer keeps the bosses awake
at night. Undeniably, all the forms of the "revolt against
work" are much more difficult to identify then they were
twenty years ago.
To many people this is further proof that
the working class is on a permanent downward spiral or even
that "The American working class has been smashed" (as the
WILDCAT U.K group argued a few years ago in its journal, only
to turn around a year later and hail the L.A. riots as proof
of a new "proletarian" upsurge!)
Others will point to the declining level of both strikes
and union membership (although this has been slightly
reversed in the U.S. according to the latest figures) yet as
further evidence of the passivity of the working class in
face of the brutal restructuring and attacks on workers'
living standards. In fact, if it wasn't for the miner's
strike last year pulling down the figures to one day in forty
years, the strike figures for American workers are so low
nowadays that if current trends continue, the average worker
would stand to lose a days work due to a strike or lockout
once every hundred years! ( U.S. Labor dept. statistics
quoted in the May 94 issue of LABOR NOTES.)
But it is one thing to say that people no longer have
confidence in or join traditional organizations and another
to say that they no longer struggle.
To take this point a step further, we would argue that
this is true even of spontaneous visible struggle - those
struggles waged outside traditional organizations, which
could be easily added to the first half of the equation
above without changing the essential point. ( a partial
exception being Los Angeles in 1992).
Put another way, if twenty years ago you had a rejection
of traditional organizations coupled with autonomous partial
struggles erupting outside all the usual structures (unions,
parties,etc.) set up to contain them, today you can see a
parallel decrease in both, at least for the time being.
Yet that is different from saying there is no struggle.
We think this is a crucial point. The usual equation relating
traditional vs. autonomous struggles is skewered because it
omits other possibilities and interpretations. Visible
struggle is not the only yardstick we can use to measure such
things. True, visible struggles, both official and
unofficial, are at a low ebb but could it be that is because
struggle (again, broadly defined) has gone underground in
less visible forms?
In the United States, we can point to many examples of
this tendency toward invisible struggle on the micro-level;
all taking place well after the present downturn in so-called
visible struggles began fifteen or twenty years ago.

A left-liberal sociologist influential in academic circles,
William Junius Wilson, in the course describing the growth of
the ghetto "underclass" in a New York Times interview July
26th 1992, identified something he calls "cultural mismatch"
between white employers and Black working class men. He cites
Black mens' widespread rejection of low wage service work as
one side of this mismatch. If Wilson's hypothesis is true,
then this would provide an interesting counterpoint to the
argument that the revolt against work would evaporate when
unemployment rose and social benefits were cut. It is
considered enough of a concern that liberal corporate
foundations have rushed in to fund such research.

In a book "Longshoreman: Community and Resistance on the
Brooklyn Waterfront", William Difazio points to the "refusal
to work" among longshoremen in New York, who have used the
Guaranteed Annual Income won by the union as a partial
protection against the effects of containerization. The
longshoremen are of course a historically powerful section of
the traditional working class (even if their jobs have been
decimated by automation since the mid-sixties).
Difazio underscores his first hand study by emphasizing
the ways in which these longshoreman both accommodate and
resist the demands of the system ( as represented
respectively by management and the union):
"They collectively struggle for wages without work and
for free time as opposed to work time. No longer is their
well being attached to hard work as it was in the past. Now
it is attached to managing their own time away from work.
They rightly perceive that productivity in the workplace is
opposed to their interests."

This twin dynamic - resistance and accommodation -
Difazio quite correctly relates as linked to the divide
between the worker's own informal organization and the formal
organization imposed by the structure of the industry and the
role of the union. To quote further:

"It is these informal organizations, autonomously
constituted by the workers which are most significant because
they create the potential for alternatives, for the
conditions of change. Informal resistance is the basic shift
that creates possibilities for change.
Transformative struggles are possible when there is a
convergence of individual and social needs. This convergence
of individual and social at the level of informal resistance
is community.) (P.2)

Dave Wagner, in his book "Checkerboard Square: Culture
and Resistance in a Homeless Community" points to the anger
homeless people in Portland, Maine felt toward employers who
were trying to rip them off and their overall determination
to avoid wage labor: the homeless ". . . understand in an
insightful - if non-academic way - that options are closed,
they frequently confront employers, resist work demands, and
choose other survival strategies that are independent of the
primary labor force. To the extent that this norm of
resistance dominates a sub-culture of poor people, it is not
clear whether the creation of more jobs alone or possibly
even of good jobs will immediately change the world of the
Checkerboard Square subjects". (P.73)

What connects most of these examples, extending from the
Black ghetto of large urban areas to an once powerful section
of the industrial working class to overwhelmingly white
homeless people in a poor rural state with one of the highest
poverty and unemployment levels in the country, is that in
each case, all these hidden forms of struggle against work
are taking place practically invisible to those outside of
the people directly involved themselves.
In other words, to return to the case of the
Longshoreman, if as an outsider, you only looked at what the
union was doing (or not doing) or whether a formal "rank and
file" opposition caucus emerged or whether there were strikes
(official or wildcat), you would draw quite different
conclusions than if you had spent significant amounts of time
in the longshoreman's own hall.
This is what we call the "micro" level and it is at this
"micro" level that most struggle takes place these days.
We don't pretend the concept of the "micro" level is
anything startlingly new. It merely describes part of the
daily class struggle dismissed by the traditional Left
because it is outside the heroic (and exceptional) open and
direct confrontations. As Hal Draper put it:

"To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to
"believe in" the class struggle any more than it is necessary
to believe in Newton in order to fall from an airplane . .
.The working class moves toward class struggle insofar as
capitalism fails to satisfy its economic and social needs and
aspirations, not insofar as it is told about struggle by
Marxists. There is no evidence that workers like to struggle
any more than anyone else; the evidence is that capitalism
compels and accustoms them to do so" ( "Karl Marx's Theory of
Revolution,Vol.II The Politics of Social Classes", P.42)
Since we intend to return to this issue frequently in
future editions of "Collective Action Notes" and think it is
pretty important to document examples of this micro level
resistance, we welcome readers responses, both pro and con,
to the points we raised here.

(1) Charles Reeve's article can be found most easily nowadays
in the "Echanges" pamphlet "The Refusal of Work", available
from either Collective Action or directly from "Echanges" ,
BP 241, 75866 Paris Cedex 18, FRANCE

(2) John Zerzan's article is contained in his "Elements of
Refusal", available from Left Bank Books in the U.S. or AK
Distribution in Scotland.

WHY WE PUBLISH

The goal of " Collective Action" is to circulate
information concerning tendencies with-in present day
capitalist development and the struggles, both large and
small, that inevitably erupt against it. Even if this is our
stated goal, immediately several practical questions come up:

1) How to separate what really matters from what doesn't,
especially considering the bewildering amount of so-called
information already pumped out and circulated by the
establishment press?

2) Even when a particular issue is covered, often the
coverage is incomplete, distorted, fragmented, or otherwise
obscured by the bias of the person reporting on it. For
example, on the subject of strikes, the vast majority of
reporting (even when the strike is not totally ignored )
gives little depth or understanding of what is different or
new, what workers feel (as opposed to union leaders and
representatives ), or even the outcome of the strike. "Facts"
are separated from social context.

3) Even if we can get information, what role should analysis
play in how we cover it?

We don't pretend to have any easy answers to any of
this. Instead, we conceive of "Collective Action Notes" as a
deliberately open-ended project that will evolve depending on
the number of people who decide to participate in it. Each of
whom, in turn can and will bring his or her own particular
insights to a given question or observation.
Besides the general statement in the opening
paragraph,there are still a few broad and loose points we
would like to orient toward:

1) "Micro" level reports from people participating in a
struggle themselves or with close knowledge of same.

2) A look at what is happening in social phenomenon not
ordinarily considered "political."

Some influences: A-Info's Bulletins, "Echanges", the old
"Facing Reality\Correspondence", parts of "News And Letters",
old "Solidarity", although we hope "Collective Action Notes"
in time will develop a flavor of its own.
We ask people to send us

1) Clippings from local newspapers on a regular basis.

2) Short reports and observations.

Right now, we are aiming for regular publication (every
3 months for now, bi-monthly or monthly as soon as possible)
of a 3-4 page format newsletter. In the beginning, we will
send "Collective Action Notes" free to anyone who requests
it.

For more info:

"Collective Action Notes"
POB 22962
Balto., MD., 21203
U.S.A.

It was back in the Seventies when I landed this
Mickey mouse job at the Race Track you had to go way out in
the suburbs to apply the contractor's office workers were all
white and the cleaning workers they hired were all Black it's
like that in America the land of the dictatorship of the
dollar here the apartheid is hidden they use price tags
instead of pass laws to disguise their South African
conditions of life my last job was in a plastics factory
there you had to stand on a tiny platform in front of two
hundred degree ovens and the heat peeled the skin off your
face and you always had your wrists burned and blistered by
the hot plastic behind you was a scrap shredder and you had
the din of constantly ground plastic roaring in your ears it
sounded like one of those power saws they use to cut down
trees and it was just six inches from your head EIGHT hours a
day SEVEN days a week FIFTY TWO weeks a year many workers
were underage and ducking the draft because they hadn't
registered and having no other options they ended up working
in places like this I was starting to lose my hearing and
knew I had to get out.

At the Race track you worked real hard and the pay was
less but at least you had a little more control over your
work it wasn't like the machines were driving you all the
time like it was in the factory where 24-7 man and machine
were pitted in constant struggle at the Race Track there was
a rhythm to your work mainly you held your pace between the
races at the race track the races went on every half hour or
so and when a race was over everyone would throw their
tickets up in the air and then you had to move real fast you
had to scramble to sweep up the thousands of tickets that
covered the floor in a carpet of paper and ink.

It soon became obvious to all of us that the set up was
crooked here we would go into work and without notice they
would ship us downstate to other race tracks and you would
have to work as long as they wanted you too sometimes it was
up to twelve hours sometimes it was ten and you had to go
along with it because there was no other way to get back to
the city you could never make any plans because of this and
many men were in trouble with wives and girlfriends because
these hours made it seem like they were fooling around on the
side there was union but it was a jive union and crooked too
maybe it was one of those Mafia sweetheart type unions you
never saw a representative you just saw the dues they took
out of your check each week

They started making us work Saturdays and then on our first
pay after this change we saw they hadn't paid us overtime
rates like they were supposed to no they paid out straight
time only and the contractor hemmed and hauled and tried to
say it was with in the law but we didn't listen none everyone
knew we were being screwed these words were on everyone's
lips
The next day we decided to act it was like overnight
each of us came to the same conclusion each of us thought it
out on their own and together we knew we had to do something
a guy named Al took the lead he had been in and out of the
joints and jail houses he was always getting in fights he had
a rebellious temperament and knife scars all over but its
always like that when you struggle people come together
because they face the same things and want something more
than what they have and together you work out a plan to do
something you act in one accord and back one another up
because each of you needs something the other people need
also and that is you need one another because when you
struggle for something that is the only thing you have you
have a spirit of togetherness that ties everyone into
everyone else and without this you are lost this brother Al
was just a catalyst for what everyone had grasped on their
own

We waited until the biggest race was starting and then
we turned over our cleaning buckets the water from the
buckets spread in thick puddles and bigger pools formed as
the smaller streams of water merged into the larger ones it
was very much like us cleaning workers where before we were
isolated and now we too had merged as one people who playing
the races leaped out of the way a lady in a fancy coat
screamed at us we all walked out together laughing and we
went down to the cut rate at Park Heights and pooled our shit
and got a fifth of Knotty head and drank in the alley till
the night fell and then we went our separate ways.

I see Al in the soup lines these days there is no
glimmer of recognition in his face no he does not know who I
am he looks battered these days maybe a little broken the
fire in his eyes is gone he carries those brown bags around
all the time with him now he is like hundreds of others
standing in the same lines its like that in America the land
of the dictatorship of the dollar here the apartheid is
hidden and they use price tags instead of pass laws to
disguise their South African conditions of life

WHAT IS A WORKERS CENTER?

The Chinese Staff and Worker's Association is one of a
growing number of "independent centers, an innovative form of
labor organizing that addresses workplace and community
issues simultaneously.
Worker's Centers organize workers from different
workplaces to attack industry-wide problems such as non-
payment of wages in the garment industry. They also organize
across different industries to confront common problems such
as lack of labor law enforcement, anti-immigrant
discrimination and racism.
Independent workers centers see themselves as a new kind
of labor organization rather than pre-union formations. They
combat abuses in workplaces where their members are a
minority, sometimes forming workplace committees. Some
workers centers help workers unionize (as CSWA did with the
Silver Palace workers) but they view unionizing as only one
piece of an overall strategy to protect workers" interests.
While workplace organizing is central to what they do,
workers' centers are also organized around political and
social issues including NAFTA and economic restructuring, and
fight for working people to have a say in government and
corporate decisions that affect their lives.
Other well-known workers' centers include La Mujer
Obrera in El Paso, Texas; Black Workers For Justice in Rocky
Mount, North Carolina and Asian immigrant Women's Advocates
in Oakland, California.(LABOR Notes)

JAN 6: Six hundred people picket Mexican embassy in Los
Angeles to protest Chiapas repression.

JAN 6: Four hundred steelworkers, on strike since Sept. 1993
against the National Steel Pellet Company, stage picket and
successfully shut down six iron ore mines on the Minnesota
Iron Range.

JAN 10: Two hundred union cab drivers disrupt traffic in
Philadelphia by circling City Hall in their cabs in protest
over proposed taxi fee restructuring.

JAN 11: Twenty-three hundred autoworkers strike for one week
in Shreveport, Louisiana over lack of local contract from
General Motors truck assembly plant.

JAN 12: Two hundred people rally outside Mexican consulate to
Seattle to demonstrate support for Chiapas uprising.

JAN 13: Postal workers in Southfield, Michigan picket over
attempted return of former postmaster to facility. Postmaster
had been removed after shooting rampage in 1991 by fired
worker in nearby Royal Oak post office and was credited with
creating conditions that led to shooting through gestapo
style management techniques. Since 1983, 34 people have been
killed in postal shootings nationwide as post office
continues to imposes speed-ups and downsizing on workforce.

JAN 13: Alaska flight attendants negotiate tentative
settlement in three year struggle for contract. Workers had
used a technique dubbed CHAOS (Create Havoc Around Our
System) to put pressure on management by staging a series of
surprise rotating work slowdowns and strikes to keep Alaska
Airlines off guard and undermine the airlines' reliability
with passengers.

JAN 16: Over 1500 people attend indoor rally in Harlem
protesting police invasion of Nation of Islam mosque Jan.9th.

JAN 17: Museum workers at Museum of Modern Art in New York
hold one-day strike on Martin Luther Kings' birthday. Demands
included: recognition of Kings' birthday as a paid holiday,
increase in starting salary and increased coverage in health
care benefits.

JAN 22: Dye workers strike ends in Northern New Jersey with
defeat for union. The strike, which began in Oct. 93., was
broken through aggressive use of scabs and dye industries
determination to break union.

JAN 31: Striking Diamond Walnut workers hold mass rally
outside Sun Diamond Co., the parent company of Diamond.
Workers have been on strike since Sept. 1991 over company
demands for concessions.

JAN 31: Fifty homeless people occupy park in Olympia,
Washington to protest aggressive panhandling legislation and
lack of shelters.

FEB 3: Over 1000 public sector health care workers hold rally
outside the New York Health and Hospital Corporation
protesting proposals of Mayor Guiliani to privatize four
major city-owned hospitals.

FEB 5: Seven hundred supporters join picket line for striking
nurses outside Jersey Shore Medical Center in Asbury Park,
New Jersey.

FEB 7: Teamsters stage walkout strike against United Parcel
Service depots nationwide, despite federal court injunction
prohibiting walk-out. UPS management calling for increase in
package weight limit workers could lift from 75 to 150
pounds.

FEB 9: One thousand service, maintainance, and technical
employees at Cook County Hospital in Chicago staged a "sick -
in" to force management to ratify contract.

FEB 11: Student occupy admissions office for 15 hours at
Univ. of Mass. at Amherst to protest pending tuition
increases.

FEB 11: Three hundred striking hotel workers and supporters
picket Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis.

FEB 16: Clinton Administration releases report on
homelessness admitting seven million people were homeless at
some point in the mid-eighties.

FEB 24: Several hundred World Trade Center workers
represented by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
(HERE) stage march and rally to protest delays in returning
workers to work after World Trade Center bombing almost one
year ago.

FEB 26: Six thousand Latino union workers hold march and
rally in East Los Angeles protesting attacks on legal rights
of undocumented workers.

MAR 1: United Steelworkers strike Wheeling-Pittsburgh
facilities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia for 48
hours before accepting concessions contract.

MAR 4: South Bend, Indiana teachers end seven-day walk out
over increased health care co-payments and extension of
working hours, despite court injunction and fines.

MAR 12: One hundred and fifty women and children, organized
by the Decatur Area Staley Solidarity Committee march to A.E
Staley plant gates to protest company's continued lock-out of
seven hundred and fifty workers.

MAR 13: Hundreds of New York City Chinatown workers and
supporters chanting "Stop slave labor" take to street to
celebrate victory of forty-four locked-out Silver Palace
restaurant workers.

MAR : Protesters organized by King County Labor Council and
Seattle Jobs With Justice occupy banquet hall and forced
cancellation of a pro-NAFTA "Free Trader of the Year Award."
Demonstrators chanted "No Justice, No Banquet."

MAR 14: Twelve hundred clothing and textile workers strike
Health-Tex plants in Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia over
company's attempts to incorporate right to outsource work to
non-union contractors in new contract.

MAR 15: UAW workers at Dayton General Motors plant strike
over GM attempt to impose increased efficiency levels and
contract out supply work. Three day walkout shuts down six
other assembly plants in U.S. and Canada before settling.

KNEEL TO THE BOSS

Changes in a large downtown office building in Baltimore

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO: Building has own janitorial cleaning crew.
Workers have benefits and pensions. Workforce composition:
Mostly Black, middle-aged, workers with families.

EIGHT YEARS AGO: Janitorial work now contracted out to
minimum-wage part-time janitorial firms. Permanent jobs
eliminated. Each year, contract is awarded to lowest bidder,
resulting in increasingly fewer workers doing more work at
the same rate of pay. Workforce composition: Black, single,
young people.

TWO YEARS AGO: Outside contracting firms no longer used.
Instead work is done by Asian immigrant husband and wife team
who work entire building by themselves.

LITERATURE AVAILABLE

Collective Action

"The New Movement" by Henri Simon

"The Maryland Freedom Union" by Mike Flug

"Some Thoughts on Organization" by Henri Simon

"A Worker's Inquiry" by Karl Marx, with Supplementary
material- OUT SUMMER 1994

OTHER:

Echanges:

"Myths of Dispersed Fordism - A Controversy About the
Transformation of the Working Class" - $3.00

"Goodbye To The Unions" - $2.00

ECHANGES Bulletin: #70/71: $3.00
#72/73: $3.00

This is the second issue of "Collective Action Notes."
Please note the new, hopefully more attractive format. We
still haven't set formal subscription rates so if you like
this issue, send us a contribution (about $1 will cover
costs). If you haven't seen the first issue, please write us
and we'll be glad to mail a copy out. Several people sent us
names of other people to be added to our mailing list -
something we encourage, by the way.
The third issue should be out by the end of the summer
and will feature a major piece on Japanese style management
techniques. We also hope to have translated materials from
the French bulletin "Throughout the World, A Class In
Struggle." as well as more on the "Refusal of Work."