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Tag: "labor"

How to Embarrass Yourself as a University Administration

[ 73 ] November 22, 2014 |

Graduate students at the University of Oregon are threatening to strike over the university not giving their demand of paid family leave. You can read the details of the bargaining in quite a bit of detail here. It is nearing the end of the quarter at UO, so the graduate students have as much power as they are going to have because all the grading needs to get done. So how did the university administration respond? Pretty much in the most embarrassing way possible, sending deans and directors this leaked memo concerning what to do if they had to give the finals without their TAs.

1. Consider whether the final exam can be reformatted so that it can be graded easily (e.g., Scantron or multiple-choice). Please note that the reformatted final exams should have an equal level of rigor as originally planned.

2. To provide proctor coverage for exams, please use the teaching function strategies above.

3. Provide students with the following options:

a. Forgo the final and take the grade they had going into the final

b. Take the final, but receive an “X” (missing grade) until such time that the finals can be graded

Give everyone Scantron exams! Now that’s education. Let’s not even get into the issue that students forced to take multiple choice exams do significantly worse because there is no partial credit (which is why it is basically impossible to fail a history course unless you don’t turn assignments in or never show up). In fact, let’s just forget about education entirely. Give the students their current grade without a final! Hire some scabs to serve as TAs! Make a mockery of your entire pedagogy!

Really, shouldn’t the University of Oregon just allow students to choose their own grade? That’s only fair way to deal with a labor conflict.

Commonsense Bipartisan Legislation

[ 68 ] November 20, 2014 |

Since we all know that a divided government is the answer to the problems of this nation, I present you the kind of commonsense bipartisan leadership that Americans are demanding. Rep. Steve Stockman:

Work on Thanksgiving or Lose Your Job

[ 91 ] November 20, 2014 |

K-Mart is forcing its employees to work on Thanksgiving or be fired:

Jillian Fisher, who started a petition on Coworker.org asking Kmart to give her mother and other employees the flexibility to take the holiday off, surveyed 56 self-identified employees from more than 13 states. Of those, just three said they had the option to ask to take the holiday off. In a press release from the petition organizer, one employee said human resources has told them, “if you do not come to work on Thanksgiving, you will automatically be fired… I made the request to work a split shift on Thanksgiving and was denied.” Another said, “Our manager stated at a staff meeting: ‘Everyone must work Thanksgiving and Black Friday. No time off.’” At one location, an employee says signs have been posted in the break room saying workers can’t request time off on Thanksgiving or Black Friday and that everyone has to put in at least some time on both, while at another signs have been posted saying no one can request time off between November 15 and January 1.

“I am a lead at a Kmart and it is mandatory for me to work on Thanksgiving,” another employee said. “If I were to call out I would be terminated, and requesting off is not allowed.”

I’ll leave the fact that people who go shopping at a department store on Thanksgiving have some priority issues that need addressing and just state it is flat out immoral to force non-emergency employees to labor on Thanksgiving. And K-Mart and other department stores do not have emergency employees. But these stores do not treat workers with respect to begin with. This is the kind of story where public pressure can really make a difference. Last year there was a lot of negative attention paid to this issue. This year, many department stores have announced they are giving everyone the day off and closing. K-Mart is not one of those but embarrassing it might force a change.

Overtime

[ 83 ] November 19, 2014 |

They are an endangered species, but there are a few capitalists who see the income inequality of the New Gilded Age as a threat to capitalism, as they should. One is Nick Hanauer, who was an early investor in Amazon. He writes a lengthy essay in Politico about how awful it is that overtime for workers has gone away and what President Obama can do about it:

So what’s changed since the 1960s and ’70s? Overtime pay, in part. Your parents got a lot of it, and you don’t. And it turns out that fair overtime standards are to the middle class what the minimum wage is to low-income workers: not everything, but an indispensable labor protection that is absolutely essential to creating a broad and thriving middle class. In 1975, more than 65 percent of salaried American workers earned time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over 40 hours a week. Not because capitalists back then were more generous, but because it was the law. It still is the law, except that the value of the threshold for overtime pay—the salary level at which employers are required to pay overtime—has been allowed to erode to less than the poverty line for a family of four today. Only workers earning an annual income of under $23,660 qualify for mandatory overtime. You know many people like that? Probably not. By 2013, just 11 percent of salaried workers qualified for overtime pay, according to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute. And so business owners like me have been able to make the other 89 percent of you work unlimited overtime hours for no additional pay at all.

In my defense, I’m only playing by the rules—rules written by and for wealthy capitalists like me. But the main point is this: These are rules that President Barack Obama has the power to change with the stroke of a pen, and with no prior congressional approval. The president could, on his own, restore federal overtime standards to where they were at their 1975 peak, covering the same 65 percent of salaried workers who were covered 40 years ago. If he did that, about 10.4 million Americans would suddenly be earning a lot more than they are now. Last March, Obama asked the Labor Department to update “outdated” regulations that mean, as the president put it in his memo, “millions of Americans lack the protections of overtime and even the right to the minimum wage.” But Obama was not specific about the changes he wanted to see.

So let me be specific. To get the country back to the same equitable standards we had in 1975, the Department of Labor would simply have to raise the overtime threshold to $69,000. In other words, if you earn $69,000 or less, the law would require that you be paid overtime when you worked more than 40 hours a week. That’s 10.4 million middle-class Americans with more money in their pockets or more time to spend with friends and family. And if corporate America didn’t want to pay you time and a half, it would need to hire hundreds of thousands of additional workers to pick up the slack—slashing the unemployment rate and forcing up wages.

The Obama administration could, on its own, go even further. Many millions of Americans are currently exempt from the overtime rules—teachers, federal employees, doctors, computer professionals, etc.—and corporate leaders are lobbying hard to expand “computer professional” to mean just about anybody who uses a computer. Which is almost everybody. But were the Labor Department instead to narrow these exemptions, millions more Americans would receive the overtime pay they deserve. Why, you might ask, are so many workers exempted from overtime? That’s a fair question. To be truthful, I have no earthly idea why. What I can tell you is that these exemptions work out very well for your employers.

I’m not a labor lawyer, so I will leave the legal specifics to others. But according to Hanauer, Obama can unilaterally change the overtime regulations. And the president has acted a bit on this issue. There is no good reason for Obama not to make a really significant change to the overtime rules except that he, like most Democrats in Washington, actually believe that corporate leaders are correct when they talk about “burdensome regulations” and themselves as “job creators.” Hanauer says these are outright lies, later going into what the capitalists actually spend their money on (note: it may make you angry). But that ideology is so incredibly powerful among the American political elite, an ideology backed up by the need for massive campaign contributions in a post-Citizens United world, that the reality matters less than pleasing the plutocrats. And that’s the Democrats. As for the Republicans, impoverishing the American working class is an outright goal.

The Prison Labor Complex

[ 58 ] November 19, 2014 |

The California Attorney General’s office opposed the release of inmates because the state wanted to use them as cheap firefighter labor.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that attorneys in Harris’ office had unsuccessfully argued in court that the state could not release the prisoners it had agreed to release because “if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.” Those prisoners, the Times reported, earn wages that range from “8 cents to 37 cents per hour.”

In a Sept. 30 filing in the case, signed by Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney but under Harris’ name, the state argued, “Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation — a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

Approximately 4,400 California prisoners help the state battle wildfires, at wages of about $2 a day. There is an exception in the agreement that allows the state to retain firefighters — but only firefighters — who are otherwise eligible for release.

Like incarcerated firefighters, inmates who perform “assignments necessary for the continued operation of the institution and essential to local communities” draw from the same pool of inmates who pose a limited threat to public safety, the state argued in a September filing. Therefore, reducing that population would require the prisons to draw more incarcerated workers away from its firefighting crews.

This is the reality of the labor force today–states actively rely on incarcerated labor for work. I don’t think I need to list the many problems with this.

Prosecute the Apparel Companies

[ 13 ] November 19, 2014 |

Sweatshop factories in California are making a non-zero amount of your clothes:

Workers in the California garment industry are enduring poor working conditions and insufficient pay, the US Department of Labour has found. More than 1,500 Southern California garment workers are owed over $3 million in unpaid wages, the government department found following a year-long survey – which also concluded that American companies Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom and JC Penney, among others, were producing garments in the factories concerned.

You want to stop this? Charge huge fines to Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and JC Penney for doing business with people who make clothes in this manner. That’s how you stop it. We make decent working conditions part of the cost of doing business. This so often gets portrayed as an issue of “ethical sourcing.” That’s not incorrect, but it misstates the problem. The problem isn’t sourcing production with the right contractors. It’s the entire system of apparel contracting. It’s that the apparel industry gets away from washing its hands of responsibility through it’s don’t ask don’t tell position about its contractors. Only by holding these companies fiscally and legally responsible will clothing be produced ethically

Labor Notes

[ 15 ] November 16, 2014 |

There are a lot of labor stories in my blogging queue right now. Let’s just deal with them all at once.

1. Do we need a new legal framework for food workers? Jacob Gersen and Benjamin Sachs say we do and they are correct:

Take farm workers who witness the processing of infected (or “downer”) cows — an illegal but, unfortunately, not uncommon practice that risks spreading a host of diseases to humans. Or workers in poultry-processing facilities, where safety and hygiene regulations are flouted, thus increasing the risk of salmonella, which every year results in more than one million illnesses, more than 350 deaths and over $3 billion in health care and lost productivity costs. Unless we offer specific legal protection for all food workers who come forward to expose such practices — something the law does not do now — we all are at risk.

We should also adjust many of our standard workplace rules to take account of the special nature of food production. To avoid the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which causes mad cow disease, workers involved in the processing of beef must fully and carefully remove the dorsal root ganglion, a part of the spinal nerve, from all cattle that are 30 months old or older. That’s because these dorsal root ganglia can contain the infective agent behind B.S.E.

Not sure what the Obama Administration can do on this in the face of certain Republican opposition but it should be a priority within American labor regulation.

2. San Francisco is considering an ordinance to force companies to provide a “predictable schedule” for part-time workers. This is absolutely a workplace justice issue that needs to be taken care of. Among the many problems with people stringing together multiple part-time jobs to keep a roof over their heads is the inability to know when they will need to work week-to-week at each job. Keeping workers’ lives unstable of course helps the company and so they will probably fight such a common-sense idea.

3. In the world of labor on our college campuses, administrators at Pensacola State College are telling faculty members they are violating state law by talking to student reporters about their stalled contract negotiations. The administration is trying to use a section of the state legal code already shot down by both state and federal courts. Absurd, but all too typical for one of the biggest union-busting industries in the U.S. right now–institutions of higher education.

4. I always like to highlight stories of student labor activism when I see them, so here is one on anti-sweatshop activism at Oregon State University.

5. Meanwhile, a Chicago alderman whose father worked in a sweatshop in India is pushing the City Council to pass an anti-sweatshop ordinance. Wonder what ol’Rahm thinks about that.

6. Finally, the chemical industry strikes again, with 4 dead workers at a DuPont plant in LaPorte, Texas after a chemical leaked. I’d be real curious to see when the last time this plant was inspected by OSHA.

Blankenship

[ 56 ] November 14, 2014 |

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Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy and one of the most detestable and immoral people living in the United States, was finally indicted for a few of his many crimes yesterday.

Don Blankenship, the longtime chief executive officer of Massey Energy, was indicted Thursday on charges that he orchestrated the routine violation of key federal mine safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

A federal grand jury in Charleston charged Blankenship with conspiring to cause willful violations of ventilation requirements and coal-dust control rules — meant to prevent deadly mine blasts —during a 15-month period prior to the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.

The four-count indictment, filed in U.S. District Court, also alleges that Blankenship led a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance of government inspections.

“Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing,” the indictment states. “Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”

The indictment also alleges that, after the explosion, Blankenship made false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the investing public about Massey’s safety practices before the explosion.

I’m really curious to what extent lying to investors wasn’t his real downfall. Being indicted is definitely not the same as receiving the harsh punishment Blankenship deserves, but it is a necessary and all too rare step to hold an employer accountable for people dying on the job. Still, the case of Blankenship is SO egregious that it could not be ignored and still took 4 1/2 years after the death of 29 miners.

World Cup Labor

[ 41 ] November 8, 2014 |

That Qatar World Cup is really setting a new standard for labor rights:

Thousands of migrant labourers from North Korea are toiling for years on construction sites in Qatar for virtually no pay – including on the vast new metropolis that is the centrepiece of the World Cup – in what may amount to “state-sponsored slavery”.

According to testimonies from workers and defectors, labourers from the reclusive state said they receive almost no salaries in person while in the Gulf emirate during the three years they typically spend there.

They work in the expectation they will collect their earnings when they return to North Korea, but according to a series of testimonies from defectors and experts, workers receive as little as 10% of their salaries when they go home, and some may receive nothing. One North Korean worker at a construction site in central Doha told the Guardian: “We are here to earn foreign currency for our nation.”

Shouldn’t there be some sort of international boycott of the event if it relies on slave labor. Obviously, FIFA doesn’t care, nor Qatar, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise a stink.

A World Without Jobs

[ 270 ] November 7, 2014 |

Technological advances are going to take away basically all of our jobs. This workless future should frighten all of us. It certainly worries Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla. To say the least, Khosla’s solutions section is really murky because he can’t get past basically being a technofuturist libertarian, but his diagnosis of the problem is spot on. In part:

While the future is promising and this technology revolution may result in dramatically increasing productivity and abundance, the process of getting there raises all sorts of questions about the changing nature of work and the likely increase in income disparity. With less need for human labor and judgment, labor will be devalued relative to capital and even more so relative to ideas and machine learning technology. In an era of abundance and increasing income disparity, we may need a version of capitalism that is focused on more than just efficient production and also places greater prioritization on the less desirable side effects of capitalism.

Let’s look at the scale of change that the new machine learning and data revolution may bring and why it potentially could be different than prior technology revolutions like mobile phones, accessible computing and automobiles. Just in the Khosla Ventures portfolio alone, entrepreneurs already are trying to use machine learning technologies to replace human judgment in many areas including farm workers, warehouse workers, hamburger flippers, legal researchers, financial investment intermediaries, some areas of a cardiologist’s functions, ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialists, psychiatrists and many others. Efficiency in the business world generally means reducing costs, which results in using fewer well-paid but highly skilled minds and the technology they develop or capital to replace lower paid and less skilled workers.

In past economic history, each technology revolution—while replacing some jobs—has created more new types of job opportunities and productivity improvements, but this time could be different. Economic theory is largely based on an extrapolation of the past rather than causality, but if basic drivers of job creation change then outcomes may be different. Historically, technology augmented and amplified human capability, which increased the productivity of human labor. Education was one method for humans to leverage technology as it evolved and improved. However, if machine learning technologies become superior in both intelligence and the knowledge relevant to a particular job, human employees may be rendered unnecessary or in the very least, they will be in far less demand and command lower pay.

Machines with unlimited and rapidly expanding human-like capabilities may mean there will no longer be as much need to leverage human capabilities. In fact, there may be little for humans to augment or amplify even as productivity per human hour of labor increases dramatically all while far fewer people are needed for most tasks. This is not to say all human functions will be replaced but rather that many, and maybe even a majority, may not be needed.

What if machines, which may soon exceed the capability of human judgment, do most jobs better than humans even if people receive additional training? The magnitude of the problem of displaced workers and increasing income disparity especially in the face of abundance (increasing GDP) may become substantially larger. It is possible that this particular technology revolution does not allow for human augmentation and amplification by technology to a large enough degree and that education and retraining are not solutions at all, except for a very small percentage of the workforce. As Karl Marx said, “when the train of history hits a curve, the intellectuals fall off”. Extrapolation of our past experiences, a favorite technique of economists, may not be a valid predictor of the future—the historical correlation may be broken by a new causality. Efforts at estimating the number of jobs that are susceptible to computerization underestimate how technology may evolve and make assumptions that seem very likely to be false, similar to past “truths” (like the waning correlation between productivity and income growth for labor). Even with this underestimate, researchers concluded that of the 702 job functions studied, 47-percent are at risk of being automated.

If climate change is the greatest challenge faced by the human race, I would say that the elimination of work is the second greatest challenge. I know the usual critique, including among many commenters here, is to call any criticism of technology Luddism and continue in our blind faith in technology. But this is very real problem. There is no future for work in this machine-driven society. If machines can replace not only blue-collar but also white-collar work, what do we do to eat, to house ourselves, to live a decent life? We have already seen the impacts of mechanization on the American working class and the result is not pretty. We are able to ignore the endemic poverty and societal instability the loss of jobs has created because the white-collar, professional class has largely been unaffected. But that is changing very rapidly. Outsourcing jobs only adds to this. Is there any reason to pay Americans to do accounting work? Why shouldn’t that all be sent to India? Assuming we need any humans at all?

Sure, such a technological utopian near future could free us all from work and allow us to live the creative lives of leisure we all think we deserve. Hey, that’d be great! It’s also totally ridiculous to think that is the outcome here. Far more likely is the exacerbation of what we are already seeing: a new Gilded Age of extreme income inequality as the global 1% completely controls everything and the global 99% is a threat that is put down with police power. I have to say that anyone who says this is not the likely outcome is probably ignoring how power operates and the insatiable desire of the rich to horde resources.

I know this post sounds apocalyptic. But it’s not just me saying this is coming. It’s the business leaders ensuring it is happening.

NPR: Unionbuster

[ 10 ] November 6, 2014 |

Our valued commenter Bruce Vail has an important piece at In These Times on the Baltimore NPR station hiring a notorious unionbusting firm to ensure its workers do not have a voice

Jonathan Rogers, Chair of the WYPR Board of Directors and an executive of Merrill Lynch, the stock brokerage unit of Bank of America, told In These Times that the board had approved the hiring of Jackson Lewis but denied it was an attempt to defeat the union.

“We felt it was in the best interest of the station to ensure that the concerns of the organization were heard,” in the course of the NLRB process, Rogers says. Asked whether he was opposed to recognizing the union, Rogers replied, “My personal feelings are irrelevant.”

Marc Steiner disagrees. A former WYPR executive who now hosts a program for a competing radio station in the Baltimore market, Steiner was ousted from the station in 2008 after a showdown with current WYPR President Anthony Brandon over control at the station. He counters that the personal feelings of the board members are very relevant.

“The Board is made up of corporate executives and wealthy people, most of whom do not understand public radio,” Steiner says. “It is really run, or at least it was when I was there, more like a commercial station.”

Steiner says that WYPR workers he has spoken with wanted a union in part “to ensure a firewall between those corporate interests and programming. Unless things have changed [since I worked there], programming is under constant pressure to mold what is heard on the airwaves to interests of underwriters.” He also reports hearing consistent complaints about heavy-handed management techniques and substandard pay levels—many complaints revolve around Brandon’s perceived autocratic style of management. on the job.

Look, we hired this union busting firm but not because we wanted to stop our workers from unionizing. We wanted to make sure our corporate voice was heard through the kind of legal shenanigans that only a union busting firm can provide. Now please give us more money during the next pledge drive.

This Day in Labor History: November 2, 1909

[ 26 ] November 2, 2014 |

On November 2, 1909, the Industrial Workers of the World called a free speech strike in Spokane, Washington. The free speech movements would highlight what the IWW did well and where is struggled, as the organization exposed the hypocrisy and brutality of Gilded Age capitalism and exposed to the nation the terrible lives of working people while at the same time failing to build on a major early victory when it won this battle.

The IWW was founded in 1905 to give power to the millions of industrial workers who lacked it in Gilded Age America. With the American Federation of Labor largely unwilling to organize women, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, farmworkers, children, or the giant industrial workplaces developing during the late 19th century, there was a tremendous vacuum for someone willing to organize the masses. The IWW would step into that vacuum.

Conditions in northeastern Washington were as bad as the rest of the nation. This was farming and logging country and both industries relied on itinerant labor. Working and living conditions were terrible and pay was poor. What really made workers angry was the employment agency scam. Companies and farmers would contract out with employment agencies, forcing workers to use them for a job. Workers paid for this service. If a job wasn’t there when they arrived, no money back! Return to Spokane and try again. Same if the job just lasted a couple of days. This was rank exploitation of the poor.

These conditions made Spokane an early IWW organizing hotspot. By mid 1909, the city and surrounding region had up to 1500 dues-paying members and a nice headquarters. It expanded its presence through street speaking. This is the literal meaning of “get on your soapbox” in action here. In angry speeches denouncing the exploitation workers faced, Wobbly speakers attempted to convince the workers passing through Spokane from job to job to fight back. As 1909 went on, the Spokane police began cracking down against this. In March, the city council passed an ordinance banning public speaking to all “revolutionists.”

anit-IWW cartoon from Spokane Spokesman Review 1909

Anti-IWW cartoon from Spokane newspaper

As arrests grew, the IWW moved toward a larger action. When local Wobbly leader Jim Thompson was arrested for speaking without a permit on October 25, the IWW demanded his release and threatened to send speakers from around the country to city and flood the jails. Spokane called the IWW on its bluff and the IWW began its first major free speech fight on November 2. Spokane police began arresting everyone who tried to speak. Soon 400 people were in jail, overwhelming the prison system. As the members cycled out of jail, often after a 30-day sentence, they got themselves rearrested. Conditions in the prisons were terrible. Overcrowded and cold, the prisoners were intentionally underfed and forced to take ice-cold outdoor showers in the winter.

This was not quite the first free speech fight, but it was the first to become a national story. Major radical speakers like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived. Flynn was nineteen and pregnant. She was arrested as well, after chaining herself to a lamppost to avoid it. When she was in prison, she had a story published in Industrial Worker that the Spokane police were using the prison as a brothel. The police went ballistic and attempted to confiscate all copies. The intense resistance of the IWW surprised Spokane and overwhelmed its ability to deal with the crisis of its own making.

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The IWW won a pretty complete victory in the free speech fight here. All the unconstitutional restrictions on their activities were taken away and the free speech prisoners freed. It could hold outdoor meetings without the police harassing them. And during the strike, the employers gave up the contract labor system in order to take away part of workers’ reason to be angry. But the employers could have held out. Most of the arrested strikers were out of town revolutionaries and the IWW leadership was having trouble finding more. The IWW actually approached the Spokane city government for a deal because it knew it would lose soon.

What I find fascinating about the IWW response to Spokane is how rapidly the conditions of work in Spokane disappeared from the pages of Industrial Worker, the most important IWW newspaper, once this struggle became about free speech. Instead of the hellish lives experienced by the rank and file, the fight was about free speech, heightening the contradictions of capitalism by forcing mass arrests, and the potential for revolutionary change. But the actual conditions of work became secondary, basically disappearing from Wobbly documents. That might make sense in the short term. But when the strike ended, Spokane itself faded from view. The Wobblies moved on to the next big national struggle. The focus on conditions in Spokane that was common in the paper before the strike was completely gone after it was won.

Even after the strike was won, the conditions of labor were still terrible. But the IWW as a national organization really failed to build upon this victory. It could have really doubled down in Spokane and started pushing further improvements to the lives of the loggers, agricultural workers, and urban workers (who were really the same people since people switched work in this economy all the time). But it did not. The loggers would still remain active IWW members and northeastern Washington and northern Idaho the heart of Wobbly radicalism in the Northwest timber industry. But it would take another decade, more strikes, and government intervention to solve the labor unrest caused by the terrible exploitation of the timber industry.

I don’t necessarily blame the IWW here for its failure to build on the free speech fights, a problem it would have throughout its history. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of the victory in Spokane. This was a young organization with the struggles that new groups have. It was very good at certain things, such as throwing the hypocrisy of the capitalists back in their face, creating public displays, and promulgating powerful cultural images. It also managed to make strong connections some of the nation’s poorest workers. It was not good at understanding how to build a long-term struggle, nor would it ever be. For many IWW leaders and intellectuals, ideas of revolution and struggle had more appeal than the day to day organizing needed to build long-term worker power. For an organization so dedicated to the struggles of the nation’s poorest, a lot of its leaders and famous speakers could abstract the working class at the same time as providing material assistance to it at its hardest times.

I think the real relevance of this story today is in the tricky connections between free speech and long-term organizing. The commitment of American radicals to free speech as a principle has waxed and waned over time, but today, like a century ago, it’s high on the radical agenda. And fighting for the spaces and rights for that speech against what can be a coercive state is a major demand, like a century ago. So I guess I see Occupy Wall Street and the IWW free speech fights as having certain similarities. Demanding the soapbox is a vital principle, but it’s awfully hard to build on that to other issues that connect directly to everyday people’s lives. This went far to undermine Occupy and proved a barrier for the IWW as well. The free speech fights were noble, but in the end they didn’t do a whole lot for empowering the rank and file to control their own lives.

This is the 124th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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