On the Front Lines of Class War: Why the Fight for a Livable Wage is Everyone’s Fight

From Common Dreams:  http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/12/18-6

by Colin Jenkins

In the spring of 2004, amid the thaw of a frigid New York City winter, a brave group of Starbucks baristas began organizing. Like most service-sector employees in the United States, they were faced with the daunting task of trying to live on less-than-livable wages. Inconsistent hours, inadequate or non-existent health insurance, and less-than-dignified working conditions paled in comparison to their inability to obtain the most basic necessities. Apartment meetings, backroom discussions, and after-hours pep talks – all fueled by a collective angst – culminated into a sense of solidarity, the natural bond that occurs when workers take the time to realize their commonalities and shared struggle.

On May 17, 2004, they officially announced their affiliation with the Industrial Worker of the World, an all-encompassing union with an impressive history of labor activity in the US. A petition for unionization followed suit. Their demands were simple: Guaranteed hours with the option for full-time status, an end to understaffing, a healthier and safer workplace, and increased pay and raises.

“Solidarity Unionism,” Grassroots Organizing, and the Formation of a New Front

It is only fitting that such a daring endeavor would fall under the banner of the IWW. Proudly asserting itself as “One Big Union” and “A Union for All Workers,” the “Wobblies” shun hierarchical and highly-bureaucratic union models that have dominated the American labor scene for much of the past half-century, instead promoting and utilizing direct action that is member-run and member-driven. Deploying what they refer to as “solidarity unionism,” as opposed to “business unionism,” the preamble to the IWW’s constitution echoes an old-school, militant, trade-union tone, boldly (and correctly) proclaiming, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people” – a far cry from the timid and capitulating modus operandi of the modern adaptation. However, it is not just a much-needed infusion of labor militancy that makes the IWW attractive, it is its grassroots approach to labor organizing. In a post-industrial landscape that is overrun with underemployment, the IWW’s model represents accessibility and a sense of empowerment for disconnected workers who find themselves on virtual islands – outside the potentially radical confines of a traditional shop floor. And when considering that wages have either dropped or remained stagnant in the midst of ever-growing costs of living over the past 30 years, it is no surprise that American workers are reaching their collective breaking point and seeking refuge in the form of a shared struggle.

After decades of a disastrous neoliberal agenda that has placed the American working class in an all-out sprint to the bottom, the growing needs of low-wage workers coupled with the “wobbly way” to create a perfect storm. As such, the Starbucks Union captured a vibe and sparked a movement. 2007 saw the arrival of Brandworkers, “a non-profit organization bringing local food production workers together for good jobs and a sustainable food system.” Following a similar grassroots blueprint, the NYC-based organization was founded “by retail and food employees who identified a need for an organization dedicated to protecting and advancing their rights,” and stands on “a simple principle: that working people themselves, equipped with powerful social change tools, were uniquely positioned to make positive change on the job and in society.” Their direct-action, “Focus on the Food Chain (FOFC)” initiative specifically targets “the rapid proliferation of sweatshops among the food processing factories and distribution warehouses that supply the City’s (NYC) grocery stores and restaurants” and that of which “increasingly relies on the exploitation of recent immigrants of color, mostly from Latin America and China.” In an unprecedented effort, FOFC “creates space for the immigrant workers of NYC’s industrial food sector to build unity with each other, gain proficiency in the use of powerful social change tools, and carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry.” Ultimately, “Focus members and their allies are using organizing, grassroots advocacy, and legal actions to build a food system that provides high-quality local food and good local jobs.”

Continue reading at:  http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/12/18-6

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