Options and limitations in workplace organizing

“We have met with management and the commissioners, and nothing changed. We have taken action and held demonstrations, and got nothing. Now we try the lawyers to see if we can win”.

Another driver speaks up

“That’s not true, when we had a strike they had to listen to us”

The speaker replies “maybe for one week, two weeks, yes. But then they forget it all”.

Earlier in the meeting we had been discussing a proposal the drivers had put forward for getting a lawyer to lead a lawsuit against the abuse they suffer at work via the various employers and state authorities that control, legislate, and regulate their jobs.

The two of us aren’t drivers, we are militants committed to building a new workers movement. We had been working with the drivers who were fighting their employers and the state around workplace grievances. At the meeting we spoke to try and draw out the limitations of the legal system in solving these problems. Labor law, and the fuzzy branches of the law that cross over into its turf, was written by the employers for the employers.

At best we can use the law as a defensive shield, but trying to turn it into a sword, a strategic plank of our struggle, is dangerous. For one, court battles are where we are weakest. Courts take expensive lawyers, countless hours, and technical education that workers don’t have… but employers and the government do have. On the shopfloor it’s reverse. There we control the process, and without our cooperation, nothing moves. Switching gears from the shop to the courts is a wise move for the rulers. For us, it can undermine our actions by taking what can be a movement-building collective struggle into isolated actions of individuals and disheartening uphill battles with entrenched bureaucracies.

As organizers we tend to see the world as wide open, the possibility for struggle is everywhere. We just lack the will and sometimes the means.

For the drivers the situation was reversed. Everywhere is closed doors. The lawsuit approach was not so much innovation or hope so much as desperation and a sense of failure. Repeatedly in the struggle the drivers said that they have no power, and that they need someone with power (politician, lobbyist, priests, lawyers, unions, NGOs to name a few) to act in their favor.

It isn’t that they have illusions about those people and their agendas. Prior to leading strikes, rallies, and workplace actions, the drivers spent years lobbying the County, paying lawyers, and spending thousands of dollars trying to cur the favor of the elite. To no avail, nothing worked, and from the first meeting it was clear that the drivers saw directly the intimate link between the employers, the state, and organized legal criminal activity.

This is the contradiction though, how do we make sense of workers who see the failure and limitations of a system to meet their needs, but continually look for another in to save them?  What avenues are available to people? The way we solve problems in this society is exactly what they were trying to do. We sue, we lobby, we elect. It might not work well, but that’s the existing means to solve problems.

Our challenge is to organize activity that most people have never seen, let alone have seen work. Our path is filled with potential harm and often high likelihood of failure. This tension helps us make sense of why people come to workplace organizers when they do, so-called “hot shops”. People often want to organize when they’ve run out of options, and run out of something to lose. You meet with a committee that is verbally militant, but everyone quits two weeks later. People call for a strike when they know they are going to be fired.  The fire burns hot, then it smolders, and the campaigns often are snuffed out by speed more than anything else. Hopefully we gather enough embers to carry us through the day for the next cold night to come.

The drivers were different though. They were at a more neutral position, having tried a number of options, all of which were only partial successes, and having more to lose before giving up the ghost. That is the real challenge of trying to build a movement. We need to be active in the struggle, to fight as a group, and to build our consciousness together through these collective struggles. To do so, we have to be able to push past the pre-existing channels that want to divert that river, into a number of dams that keep the power plants of capitalism running (unions, NGOs, the parties). This means real risks. More importantly this means being able to organize people for often long entrenched low-intensity struggles that will only see serious wins after a potentially long period of unpleasant work.

The kind of commitment (both to change and to our coworkers) that organizing requires goes beyond bread and butter issues. As long as we think about organizing simply in terms of improving the conditions we’re forced to work in, we’re bound to do the work all by ourselves (or take jobs as staff of unions or NGOs). To sustain that work we need to be able to make the bridge between struggle, and the social, emotional, and cultural bedrock that will help us weather failures, alienation, and attacks.