Monday, April 28, 2014

Post-election Turkey and the Revolution in Rojava

Link to article: Solidarity.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Raising Our Expectations

from Jacobin -- a magazine of culture and polemic published quarterly out of New York City.

Jane McAlevey challenges the Left to stop lamenting its disappointments in the working class and address our own failures.

Looking back to the defeat of the labor movement since the early 1980s, three lessons seem especially important. First, any gains made under capitalism are temporary; they can be reversed. Second, the kind of unionism we developed in that earlier period of gains was inherently limited; it left us in a poor position to respond to the subsequent attacks. Third, absent new forms of working class organization and practices, fatalism takes over and worker expectations fall.
Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), newly out in paperback from Verso, is part memoir, part organizing manual, and part rejoinder to that fatalism. Jane McAlevey is a long-time organizer in the student, environmental and, over the past two decades, labor movements. She is currently a PhD candidate at City University of New York, which she has integrated into her continuing life as a labor organizer. Her message, based on her experiences and achievements, is that as much as capitalism has diminished workers and undermined their confidence in affecting their lives, workers can overcome — but only if they themselves become organizers inside both the workplace and community.
While any such organizing begins with workers’ needs, it is workers’ expectations of their own ability to intervene — and of the support from their unions in doing so — that must especially be raised. McAlevey refuses to romanticize workers or glorify spontaneity. But she deeply respects working people and genuinely appreciates their creative potential, a respect reflected in her refusal to be shy about challenging workers to reach their potential.
Organizing strategy is McAlevey’s forte, and two examples highlight her approach. In 1998, following the moment in the mid-nineties when the AFL-CIO had become desperate enough to allow some real experimentation to take place, McAlevey was sent to Stamford, Conn., to direct an organizing drive, the Stamford Organizing Project. Stamford had one of the lowest union densities in all of New England.
A number of aspects of that drive stand out. First, as obvious as it might seem to cooperate across unions, it is in fact extremely rare to see unions getting together to “pool resources, share lists, and adhere to collectively made decisions.” To the credit of the four locals involved (most of whose leadership came from an oppositional and left tradition), they saw beyond a parochial concern to gain new dues-paying members and grasped the need to build the class across sectors and across racial and gendered divisions.
Second, when a main concern of the workers turned out to revolve around access to housing, McAlevey shifted the unionization drive to make housing a primary focus — class was not just a workplace relationship. The confidence, skills, and alliances developed in that campaign, and the corresponding credibility gained for the labor movement, were key to organizing unions and winning strong contracts.
Breaking down the distinction between the workplace and the community and putting an emphasis on community allies is itself not unusual in such struggles; what was distinct was that rather than seeing the community as an “other,” McAlevey emphasized the extent to which workers were themselves part of the community; success depended on workers becoming the key organizers in bringing the community around. “When union staff try to do it in place of workers,” McAlevey writes, “they blow it.”
Some six years later, just before the split in the AFL-CIO in 2005, McAlevey was sent by SEIU to organize public and private hospitals in Nevada. Because Nevada became a right-to-work state, with workers having the right to opt out of paying dues, the thin organizing that unions commonly practice couldn’t work. McAlevey’s team identified and supported organic worker-leaders. The intensive, face-face organizing that followed, with increasingly confident workers now “in constant conversation with one another about everything going on” raised the share of dues-paying union members from 25% to 80% and higher — enough of a difference to distinguish between collective begging and collective bargaining.
This was accomplished by honing a rigorous system of mapping the workplace thoroughly and continuously, and then building and deliberately testing the workers’ capacities throughout the campaign. Alongside this, McAlevey insisted that to build the kind of power necessary to win in the particularly hostile context of Nevada demanded an inclusive bargaining unit — one that brought nurses and lab technicians together with janitors, laundry workers, and food preparation staff.
To a degree virtually unheard of in labor negotiations, McAlevey pressed to open up the bargaining sessions to the members. The bargaining team included “one worker to the team for every twenty-five workers in the larger units and for every fifteen workers in the smaller units,” and this was done “by unit and shift so that we had every kind of worker input.” All members were welcome and “encouraged to attend negotiations, whether for a day, an hour, or a coffee break.”
This had, as McAlevey acknowledges, its risks and demanded a great deal of preparation and internal discipline if it wasn’t to become a free for all. But in the end, such “big bargaining” greatly contributed to winning over members disillusioned about the union and their role within it.
In both examples, and central to all of McAlevey’s organizing, is the priority given to carrying out the most in-depth power analysis of what workers are up against and where they can exercise leverage in their struggle. This involves mapping and charting the power not only of the companies being unionized or bargained with, but in the communities in which the struggle is taking place.
And it includes both the conventional metrics of identifying power brokers, community leaders, state-corporate links, and others, and qualitative assessments by the workers themselves of both the power arrayed against them and the power they can bring to bear. The information gathered and the process of gathering it then become integral to developing workers’ strategic understandings and capacities.
Some critics of the book have accused McAlevey of self-promotion for the book’s emphasis on her own role in these events. This seems rather churlish. Both the device of making her points through a memoir based on her personal experience and the informal style were clearly intended to make it more accessible to lay readers and rank-and-file unionists. (The publishers apparently asked for the personalized subtitle of “My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement.”) Moreover, McAlevey is very generous in pointing to her mentors and giving them and earlier organizers credit for the model she applies.
Judgments of McAlevey’s personality are beside the point. The real question is whether she has written a book that contributes to addressing labor’s current impasse. And on this score, it is difficult to imagine even such critics denying that she has something important to say.
McAlevey has also been attacked — most notably by respected labor journalist Steve Early — for her criticism of Sal Rosselli, the SEIU leader of a key local in California who broke away, after the SEIU’s imposition of a trusteeship, to form the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
Early’s attack is doubly unfortunate. First, McAlevey’s book only mentions Rosselli in passing. Challenging her brief comments is one thing; focusing on those few passages to essentially dismiss the book is another. Second, whatever disagreements there may be between Early and McAlevey on this specific issue, they are on the same side in their antipathy to the role of the SEIU leadership. As McAlevey says in her new afterward, “While the Birthers and Tea Party were effectively mobilizing town halls all across the nation to destroy health care–reforms, SEIU’s health-care organizers were busy blowing up one of their best local unions.”
Most important, however, in terms of discussions of organizing models, have been suggestions that as a staff representative herself, McAlevey presents a model that is staff-driven. We should, of course, be wary of organizing models that substitute staff for the participation of workers. But the very point of McAlevey’s work is to combat that kind of relationship between staff and rank-and-file and replace it with an orientation to remaking the working class into a social force with the capacity to make its own decisions.
As she said of the Stamford process, “I was proposing that the bulk of this work not be done directly by union organizers but by the workers themselves.” It was, in fact, McAlevey’s refusal to toe SEIU’s deal-making model, which she has referred to elsewhere as “organizing the company,” and to repeatedly insist on organizing the workers, that got her in trouble with the SEIU top leadership.
Yet the issue here isn’t just to reject the role of staff. In the building of militant, democratic, community-centered unions, full-time staff have an essential role to play as catalysts and support systems for bringing in and bringing out the best in the members. To ignore this is to obscure all the difficult but necessary issues of how to establish the proper context for staffers to play this kind of role.
The larger issue here revolves around the nature of organizing. An essentialist view of workers as being inherently militant, solidaristic and strategy-wise doesn’t grasp the actual state of the working class. If workers already had the needed capacities fully formed, they would have organized themselves long ago.
Organizing is about moving people from where they currently are to someplace that brings out their potential as social agents. It involves developing the individual and collective capacities — alongside the structures, tactics and strategies — that can match what workers are up against. Most labor leaders today, McAlevey asserts, think that in the “self-centered, plugged-in, globalized country this nation has become,” deep workplace and community organizing is impossible. Her experiences prove otherwise.
The organizing model McAlevey proposes, based on her experience and with roots in early CIO practices, demands a heavy commitment of union resources (McAlevey hasn’t shied away from supporting large dues increases) and depends on experienced organizers (who may or may not be staff) playing a catalyst role. The identification of informal leaders is given much greater attention than most unions’ traditional organizing models since the de facto leaders, as McAlevey repeatedly emphasizes, are not generally the formal, elected leaders.
Organizing is a continuous process, beginning with power mapping, testing to hone mobilization capacities, then acting. It connects individual and collective action and passes on analytical and strategic skills to workers. It develops workers’ self-confidence through demonstrating that employers and politicians can be taken on and demands won. It is suspicious of the legalisms of grievance handling, instead focusing on workers addressing grievances through direct action. It keeps the union members fully informed, opens the bargaining process to much broader direct participation, doesn’t shy away from strikes, and it looks to the workers themselves to organize their communities.
And yet for all the concrete demonstrations that this model of organizing works, it did not spread across the labor movement. The exciting example in Connecticut of unions cooperating with each other and moving into the community — and subsequently gaining members and first contracts, successfully intervening to save and improve public housing projects and gaining representation in local politics — did not spread. In Nevada, an impressive number of workers overcame the state’s anti-labor legislation and joined the SEIU, and the contracts won were quite remarkable, including the breakthrough in Nevada’s health care sector for fully employer-paid family health care. Yet this too faded, undone by both legitimate disagreements and petty turf wars. What are we to make of this?
The dilemma is that this organizing model rests on unions being open to real organizing, committing the resources, standing ready to accept some turmoil within their organizations, and trusting the members rather than looking to broker deals with corporations. But unions that would agree to such a program are distressingly rare. Creating them essentially requires revolutions inside unions — something that is unlikely to happen through any spontaneous dynamic strictly internal to unions.
Without the existence of a left committed to class struggle and with its feet inside and outside workplaces, unions that have transformed into the kinds of organizing machines McAlevey helped create will remain the exception. But such a left, with links to workers and a capacity to develop organizers where workers are looking for help and workers that might transform their unions, is itself at an impasse. Much as many of us might think of the Left as the most self-conscious part of the class struggle, their impasse is as difficult to overcome as unions’.
In this context, McAlevey’s book is timely and desperately needed because it convincingly demonstrates that the problem is not in the stars, but in ourselves. If we as the Left can get our shit together, it is possible to build groups of workers into a social force in spite of the times.
Where unions are ready to try, McAlevey presents a method for how to do this. And where unions are not yet prepared to take this on, it lays out a range of specific demands we should be fighting for within our unions. (The book is full of concrete examples of tools, tactics, and strategies that can win; it is practically begging for a follow-up detailed manual).
Every serious labor activist needs to engage this book, drawing out what is useful and experimenting with variations as appropriate. But we also need to go further. Indirectly, McAlevey’s book challenges the Left to stop lamenting its disappointments in the working class and address, with humility, its own failures. The Left must raise its expectations of itself.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Call climate change what it is: violence

If you're poor, the only way you're likely to injure someone is the old traditional way: artisanal violence, we could call it – by hands, by knife, by club, or maybe modern hands-on violence, by gun or by car.

But if you're tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without any manual labor on your own part. You can, say, build a sweatshop factory that will collapse in Bangladesh and kill more people than any hands-on mass murderer ever did, or you can calculate risk and benefit about putting poisons or unsafe machines into the world, as manufacturers do every day. If you're the leader of a country, you can declare war and kill by the hundreds of thousands or millions. And the nuclear superpowers – the US and Russia – still hold the option of destroying quite a lot of life on Earth.

So do the carbon barons. But when we talk about violence, we almost always talk about violence from below, not above.

Or so I thought when I received a press release last week from a climate group announcing that "scientists say there is a direct link between changing climate and an increase in violence". What the scientists actually said, in a not-so-newsworthy article in Nature two and a half years ago, is that there is higher conflict in the tropics in El Nino years, and that perhaps this will scale up to make our age of climate change also an era of civil and international conflict.

The message is that ordinary people will behave badly in an era of intensified climate change.

All this makes sense, unless you go back to the premise and note that climate change is itself violence. Extreme, horrific, longterm, widespread violence.

Climate change is anthropogenic – caused by human beings, some much more than others. We know the consequences of that change: the acidification of oceans and decline of many species in them, the slow disappearance of island nations such as the Maldives, increased flooding, drought, crop failure leading to food-price increases and famine, increasingly turbulent weather. (Think Hurricane Sandy and the recent typhoon in the Philippines, and heat waves that kill elderly people by the tens of thousands.)

Climate change is violence.

So if we want to talk about violence and climate change – and we are talking about it, after last week's horrifying report from the world's top climate scientists – then let's talk about climate change as violence. Rather than worrying about whether ordinary human beings will react turbulently to the destruction of the very means of their survival, let's worry about that destruction – and their survival. Of course water failure, crop failure, flooding and more will lead to mass migration and climate refugees – they already have – and this will lead to conflict. Those conflicts are being set in motion now.

You can regard the Arab Spring, in part, as a climate conflict: the increase in wheat prices was one of the triggers for that series of revolts that changed the face of northernmost Africa and the Middle East. On the one hand, you can say, how nice if those people had not been hungry in the first place. On the other, how can you not say, how great is it that those people stood up against being deprived of sustenance and hope? And then you have to look at the systems that created that hunger - the enormous economic inequalities in places such as Egypt and the brutality used to keep down the people at the lower levels of the social system, as well as the weather.

People revolt when their lives are unbearable. Sometimes material reality creates that unbearableness: droughts, plagues, storms, floods. But food and medical care, health and well-being, access to housing and education – these things are also governed by economic means and government policy. That's what the revolt called Occupy Wall Street was against.

Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution. Almost 16m children in the United States now live with hunger, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and that is not because the vast, agriculturally rich United States cannot produce enough to feed all of us. We are a country whose distribution system is itself a kind of violence.

Climate change is not suddenly bringing about an era of equitable distribution. I suspect people will be revolting in the coming future against what they revolted against in the past: the injustices of the system. They should revolt, and we should be glad they do, if not so glad that they need to. (Though one can hope they'll recognize that violence is not necessarily where their power lies.) One of the events prompting the French Revolution was the failure of the 1788 wheat crop, which made bread prices skyrocket and the poor go hungry. The insurance against such events is often thought to be more authoritarianism and more threats against the poor, but that's only an attempt to keep a lid on what's boiling over; the other way to go is to turn down the heat.

The same week during which I received that ill-thought-out press release about climate and violence, Exxon Mobil Corporation issued a policy report. It makes for boring reading, unless you can make the dry language of business into pictures of the consequences of those acts undertaken for profit. Exxon says:
We are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become 'stranded'. We believe producing these assets is essential to meeting growing energy demand worldwide.
Stranded assets that mean carbon assets – coal, oil, gas still underground – would become worthless if we decided they could not be extracted and burned in the near future. Because scientists say that we need to leave most of the world's known carbon reserves in the ground if we are to go for the milder rather than the more extreme versions of climate change. Under the milder version, countless more people – species, places – will survive. In the best-case scenario, we damage the Earth less. We are currently wrangling about how much to devastate the Earth.

In every arena, we need to look at industrial-scale and systemic violence, not just the hands-on violence of the less powerful. When it comes to climate change, this is particularly true. Exxon has decided to bet that we can't make the corporation keep its reserves in the ground, and the company is reassuring its investors that it will continue to profit off the rapid, violent and intentional destruction of the Earth.

That's a tired phrase, the destruction of the Earth, but translate it into the face of a starving child and a barren field – and then multiply that a few million times. Or just picture the tiny bivalves: scallops, oysters, Arctic sea snails that can't form shells in acidifying oceans right now. Or another superstorm tearing apart another city. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings. Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A People’s History of Muslims in the United States

Students need these stories of Muslims throughout U.S. history in order to talk back to the dominant media stereotypes of Muslims as lying, violent, brown foreigners. If we gave students the historical examples in this article and more, they would realize that the history of Muslims in the United States is not limited to 9/11 and, in fact, spans from the late 15th century through today.
By Alison Kysia
April 9, 2014
When I teach history related to Islam or Muslims in the United States, I begin by asking students what names they associate with these terms. The list is consistent year after year: Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and Muhammad Ali.

All of these individuals have affected U.S. history in significant ways. If we take a step back and look at the messages these figures communicate about Muslims in U.S. history, we see a story dominated by men and by the Nation of Islam. Although important, focusing solely on these stories leaves us with a skewed view of Muslims in U.S. history. Even these examples are a stretch. Most of my students reference 9/11 as the first time they heard of Muslims.

Mainstream textbooks do little to correct or supplement the biases that students learn from the media. These books distort the rich and complex place of Muslims throughout U.S. history. For example, Malik El-Shabazz (consistently referred to first by the name Malcolm X rather than the name he chose for himself before his assassination) is framed as the militant, angry black man, the opposite of the Christian, nonviolent Martin Luther King Jr. Muhammad Ali is another popular representative of Muslims in U.S. history textbooks but is misrepresented through the emphasis on his boxing career rather than his anti-racist activism [1] against the Vietnam War.

Muslims have been part of our story from the beginning. For example, although U.S. history textbooks wouldn’t dare leave out the sanitized story of Christopher Columbus, they fail to include the Muslim-led revolt against his son, Diego, on Dec. 25, 1522. Armed with the machetes they used to cut cane, these rebels, including enslaved West African Muslims, succeeded in killing a number of colonial settlers before the insurrection was quelled; of the 15 bodies recovered, nine were Europeans. As Michael Gomez explains in Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas [2], Muslims were among the first to resist the colonialists. In fact, colonial authorities had long seen these “Moors” as a threat.

According to Sylviane Diouf, author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas [3], colonial documents between the Crown and conquistadors describe enslaved Muslims as “arrogant, disobedient, rebellious, and incorrigible.” Diouf writes that no fewer than five decrees were issued against these rebels in the first 50 years of colonization. Records from as early as 1503 confirm a request by Nicholas de Ovando, the governor of Hispaniola, to Queen Isabella asking her to restrict further shipment of enslaved Muslims because they were “a source of scandal to the Indians, and some had fled their owners.” It’s essential that students know that resistance to colonial domination has always been a part of our history—and Muslims played a role in this resistance from the earliest days.

Advertisements for people escaping slavery included names like Moosa or Mustapha, common names even among Muslims today. According to Gomez, in 1753 Mahamut (one of many spellings of Muhammad) and Abel Conder challenged the legality of their enslavement through a petition to the South Carolina government “in Arabick.” Similarly, in 1790 a number of formerly enslaved people originally from Morocco—referred to as free Moors—likewise petitioned South Carolina to secure equal rights with whites.

U.S. history textbooks generally present “slaves” as a monolithic group, absent of history, culture, and scholarship. But stories of the Muslim presence in the early United States give examples of the rich multicultural diversity among enslaved Africans.

Although most of the first Muslims in the United States were brought as slaves, some came as free men. Mohammed Ali b. Said [4], or Nicholas Said, fought in the Civil War. He was born around 1833 in the Islamic state of Bornu near Lake Chad. He was enslaved around 1849 and sold numerous times throughout the Middle East, Russia, and Europe. He traveled to the United States as a free man in 1860 and became a teacher in Detroit. Said joined the 55th Regiment of Massachusetts Colored Volunteers and served in the Union Army until 1865.

Muslims are also part of the rich history of resistance [5] to Jim Crow. In the 1920s, P. Nathaniel Johnson, who changed his name to Ahmad Din, led a multiracial integrated mosque in St. Louis. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the United States (followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who began an Islamic renewal movement in India in 1889) vocally opposed segregation, supported Marcus Garvey’s UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), and included articles in their newspaper, The Moslem Sunrise, criticizing U.S. racism.

Muslims also participated in union activism. One of them was Nagi Daifallah, a Yemeni Muslim farmworker murdered for his participation in the 1973 California grape strike. Nagi was an active member of the UFW [6] (United Farm Workers of America). On Aug. 15, Nagi joined a weeks-long strike in Lamont, Calif., where he worked at the nearby El Rancho Farms. Fifteen strikers met early that morning at the Smokehouse CafĂ© when Kern County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Gilbert Cooper arrived to harass the workers. The deputy targeted Nagi, who tried to run away. Cooper ran after him and smashed Nagi in the head with a long five-cell metal flashlight. Nagi’s spinal cord was severed from his skull. Two sheriff’s deputies picked Nagi up by the wrists and dragged him for 60 feet, taking no care to protect his head, which repeatedly hit the pavement, and then dumped him in the gutter. Deputies arrested workers who attempted to help Nagi, and he died shortly thereafter.

U.S. Muslims today continue the legacy of a people’s history. Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, is an outspoken critic of stop-and-frisk and proponent of immigration reform—she was arrested in October 2013 [7] at the national immigration reform protest in Washington, D.C. She is also at the forefront of protests against the NYPD and CIA-sponsored secret surveillance program against Muslims that began in 2001. Not only is Sarsour’s nonprofit one of the organizations targeted by the illegal spying program, so too is her children’s soccer league [8]. The NYPD included the league in its community outreach program until further investigation found that the NYPD’s involvement was simply a way to spy [9] on the community. As Sarsour explains in a Democracy Now! interview [8], “[W]hat it does is it creates psychological warfare in our community.” Considering the fact that Muslims have been routinely disappeared by the U.S. government [10] since 9/11, her willingness to stand up to the NYPD and CIA is even more courageous.

Students need these stories of Muslims throughout U.S. history in order to talk back to the dominant media stereotypes of Muslims as lying [11], violent [12], brown foreigners [13]. If we gave students the historical examples in this article and more, they would realize that the history of Muslims in the United States is not limited to 9/11 and, in fact, spans from the late 15th century through today.

Alison Kysia has taught history at Northern Virginia Community College-Alexandria for six years. She is a Zinn Education Project Program Associate at Teaching for Change. This article is part of the Zinn Education Project If We Knew Our History [15] series.
© 2014 The Zinn Education Project


Monday, April 7, 2014

A Reflection on Service Labor

 Much ink has been spilled by sundry theorists, commentators, and pundits on the question of service work, the service sector, and how they differ from 'traditional' working class occupations. Here, drawing from my own experiences laboring in service positions combined with the classical education that the ruling class foolishly permitted me access to, I will attempt to elucidate the character of service work with an eye towards helping those who seek to organize workers in the service sector. Though I have no expertise in organizing myself, I hope that my observations can assist those that do.

Part of the theoretical problem in analyzing service labor is identifying its product. Industrial products, those whose production and transport are facilitated by 'traditional' workers, are self-evident: electronics, raw materials, etc. But what, for example, does a “Customer Service Associate” produce?

Training materials for customer service workers often use the phrase “point of contact [between company and customer]” to describe the general role of service workers. Being the point of contact between a company and its customers entails maintaining an enthusiastic and sunny disposition or “positive attitude” at all times, apologizing profusely for any difficulty, and even maintaining the “emotional relationship” between the customer and the company; some training materials even contain instruction in basic psychology to facilitate the latter. Great emphasis is placed on sincerely “believing in” the company- in one case I was even told that, while on the clock, “you are the company.” Simply showing up on time and working hard is not enough. In a sense, a customer service representative is expected to become an avatar of sorts for her/his employer. The product of service labor, then, is a particular 'self' in line with the needs of the employer.

The second difficulty is more practical, and has to do with the character of service work. While each individual customer interaction is (generally) not very taxing, performing service labor for hours at a time is incredibly draining, much in the same way that adding long strings of numbers would be. One's thoughts are not one's own; there is no mental 'space' left over while performing the task to think about anything else. The work is, consequently, extremely stressful, inhibiting most service workers' ability and desire to engage socially or intellectually with each other or anyone else in a meaningful way.

Equally important is the erosion of self-worth inherent in service labor. While workers in all industries have a general awareness of their servile position, in the service sector, passivity and servility are infused into the very fabric of the work. Customers must always be addressed with an honorific, while “associates” use the diminutive form of their first name, which is often displayed upon a prominent name tag. While it may seem a trivial thing, in my experience, the mere presence of a company uniform and name tag creates a great imbalance of social power. Customers are apt to begin speaking to a worker without preamble, even a simple 'excuse me', as would be appropriate in any other setting; they initiate physical contact (usually a condescending pat on the shoulder) that would be highly inappropriate between social equals; they are also quick to resort to rudeness if a worker is not quick enough to satisfy their desires. The expectation of complete submission from 'customer service representatives' is so great that a customer once insisted to me that I was required “by law” to provide her with my first name. When met with such rudeness, and even outright verbal abuse, workers must be unfailingly polite. One training program I attended exhorted workers to “explain that [we were] only trying to provide excellent customer service” when confronted with a hostile customer, even if said customer was a thief! Being sincerely upbeat and positive at all times is imperative; what a worker might be feeling in reality is irrelevant. “If you're not feeling happy that day, just fake it” one company trainer told me, “Customer service is the most important thing.”

Tellingly, while service workers may like or dislike their employers depending on working conditions and managers' personalities (note that 'foremen' do not exist in the service sector; these employees are referred to as 'department managers' or 'team leaders' and are generally considered part of management), virtually all of them detest customers. Particularly well-liked managers can even be seen as allies against abusive customers. This is an important point to remember in organizing efforts. Keep in mind, too, that these are the experiences of a white male. Women, people of color, and other oppressed groups experience more intense alienation of the form described above, as well as facing additional work pressures related to their oppressed status.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Battle for Chattanooga: Southern Masculinity and the Anti-Union Campaign at Volkswagen

Don Jackson, the former president of manufacturing for Volkswagen Chattanooga, lectures workers on the dangers of unions at an anti-UAW meeting organized by the group Southern Momentum on Saturday, February 8. Pro-union workers say opposition from paternalistic figures like Jackson helped kill the union drive. (Photo by Angela Lewis, courtesy of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. All rights reserved.)
During the nearly two years he worked at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., Ed Hunter, 43, spent his days bent over, crawling in and out of cars on the assembly line. He believes the posture slowly destroyed his body and led to an accident he suffered in June 2011. “When I got into the car I felt something go,” he says. “I just lost my foot—I couldn’t feel it.”
When he went to the doctor the next month, Hunter learned that he had ruptured several disks in his back. Despite this, Hunter says, his team leader called him a “pussy” for taking light duty. So Hunter sucked it up and worked through the pain.
Hunter eventually began throwing up blood on the assembly line from an ulcer, which he thinks was caused by taking too many painkillers. He could no longer work on the line, so he was put on unpaid leave in November 2011. Now, he’s unable to make his mortgage payments; rather than fall behind and damage his credit, he and his wife decided to sell their home.
"When I got hurt at the plant my whole world came to an end,” Hunter told me over Texas steak melts at a Waffle House in Chattanooga last month.
When Chattanooga Volkswagen workers began to talk about organizing with the United Auto Workers, Hunter campaigned vigorously for the union, hoping in part that it would help him get a job at the plant again doing light work. But more broadly, he and several other pro-union workers say they thought a union could combat the culture of bullying and machismo that pushed employees like Hunter to the breaking point.
Last month, Hunter’s dreams were dashed when the UAW lost the union election at the plant by a mere 43 votes. The defeat came as a surprise to many, including Hunter. Volkswagen had pledged to be neutral, removing the typical management roadblocks to unionization. However, politicians, special-interest groups and—according to exclusive In These Times interviews with workers—low-level Volkswagen supervisors engaged in unsanctioned anti-union activity.
Conversations with workers on both sides of the union battle reveal that the macho culture at the plant—which Hunter and others hoped a union could combat—helped fuel the anti-union campaign by low-level management and workers, who stressed obedience to authority and masculine self-reliance as reasons to reject the UAW.
As pro-union workers at Volkswagen attempt to organize to win over the additional votes that will be needed to unionize the plant in the future, they are seeking ways to overcome this culture. It’s a tough one to shake, however, because it draws on deeply ingrained codes of Southern white masculinity, which hold great sway at a plant that workers estimate is about 90 percent white and overwhelmingly male. (In These Times reached out to several of the plant’s black workers for interviews, but they declined.)
While acknowledging these historical currents, many of the pro-union Volkswagen workers interviewed by In These Times were critical of outsiders who say that the South is impossible to organize. These workers are looking to alternative narratives of the South, and even the role of anti-Confederacy white Southerners in the Civil War, for inspiration.
The Toyota Way
Lon Gravett, 46, who was placed on leave from Chattanooga Volkswagen in November 2012 after blowing out his elbow, says he was motivated to form a union because of what he calls a high-school “bully” mentality he’s seen in many factories, including Volkswagen.
“Work is not supposed to be a popularity contest, but that’s exactly what it is, unless you’re protected [by a union],” says Gravett, who since graduating from high school in 1985 has worked in various factories, including Dupont, Cleveland Tubing, Polyloom and Volkswagen. “You’re either a whipping boy that’ll go in and break your back while others stand around, or you’re the one standing around [doing the whipping].”
“I have been in too many factories too many times and I’m rarely in the clique,” he continues. “I’m usually over there nursing a sore back.”
Gravett and other Volkswagen workers trace this supervisory style to a management culture known as the Toyota Way, developed at the non-union Toyota factories that dot the South and eventually adopted by supervisors at Volkswagen and other plants.
The Toyota Way refers to 14 principles that are drilled into the heads of workers and supervisors. In 2004, engineering professor Jeffrey K. Liker, who'd studied the Toyota plants extensively, popularized the style with his hot-selling book The Toyota Way, which quickly became the bible for managers who wanted to learn the secrets of Toyota’s success. (In the most recent quarter, Toyota made as much in profits as its two closest competitors—Volkswagen and General Motors—combined.)
“'Toyota Way' can mean a bundle of things,” explains Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “The original [meaning] is lean production and so-called team production—multiskilling—which is a way of having just enough workers to strew the line and keep everyone working full out.”
In other words, supervisors trained in the Toyota Way promote a sense of team loyalty and an unquestioning allegiance to the company, which deters workers from speaking up against management.
“The real 'Toyota Way' is a culture of control," Masaki Saruta, a Japanese business professor at Chukyo University who wrote several books on Toyota, told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. Saruta explained that the fear of bucking supervisors is so strong that many inside of Toyota were afraid of speaking up about accelerator flaws that led to one of the biggest recalls of vehicles in American history.
Don Jackson, the plant manager who got operations underway when the Chattanooga Volkswagen factory first opened four years ago, was a 20-year veteran of Toyota. He boasted to the Chattanooga Times Free Press of importing practices and personnel from Toyota and other plants.
Hunter says that the culture in the plant changed dramatically when the original Volkswagen managers, who are accustomed to working with unions and encountering dissent, returned to Germany, and Jackson’s managers came in.
“The Germans were much more friendly and willing to teach. As they left, the management became more and more off-putting. They didn't want to be bothered and did not take our suggestions kindly,” says Hunter. “It was their way or no way.”
Hunter says that the supervisors who pushed his body to the breaking point continually cited the Toyota Way principles of team loyalty. When Hunter complained that he couldn’t do the strenuous work, he says that his supervisor “taunted [him] with not being a team player when the line was short.”
Hunter is not the only worker who spoke of harsh treatment on the assembly line leading to injury. Another Volkswagen worker, Lauren Feinauer, says that she has been overworked to the point where her hands go numb.
A rogue anti-union campaign
Lichtenstein explains that the Toyota Way style of management seeks to promote the idea that every worker is a valued member of a team, and to instill in employees a sense of investment in this teamwork. That sense of investment helps increase production, but it can also be used to turn workers away from unions seeking a role in the workplace.
That may help to explain why, while Volkswagen remained neutral during the union drive, low-level supervisors actively campaigned against the union, according to workers interviewed by In These Times. Byron Spencer, a pro-union worker at the plant, identified one of those anti-union supervisors as a manager who worked at the Toyota plant in San Antonio at the same time that Jackson did.
Jackson, too, played a role in fighting the union effort. Although he had left the plant by the time the UAW campaign began, he made public statements against the union, leveraging his reputation as the businessman who had successfully opened the Volkswagen facility and brought jobs to Chattanooga. At an anti-UAW forum in July 2013, he boasted that at Toyota and Volkswagen, he had created a total of "10,000 direct jobs based on doing things the right way and managing the right way.” He implied that "managing the right way" included keeping out unions, saying of his experiences at Toyota plants in Kentucky and Texas, “I’ve learned ... how to set up a non-union environment.” (The UAW has been trying unsuccessfully for more than 20 years to organize the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., where Jackson worked.)
As the union campaign at Volkswagen progressed, Jackson continued to campaign against the UAW, appearing at an event organized by the anti-union group Southern Momentum on February 8, just a few days before the election. He also may have been in direct touch with anti-union workers—Mike Burton, a leader of the anti-union effort at the plant, says, “[Don Jackson] and I have gotten to know each other through this experience.”
The pro-union workers believe that statements by Jackson and the low-level supervisors were a major factor in turning the tide against the union.
“There is a reverence of the lower-level management,” says worker Feinauer. She attributes this attitude in part to a paternalistic culture at the plant that rewards loyalty over all else. “I … suspect the good ol’ boy system appeals to some of [the workers] because it may be the only strength they have to get themselves ahead,” she says. “If the playing field were more fair and level, they may have nothing to offer in skill, merit or education.”
Volkswagen worker Wayne Cliett agrees. “Yes, I see it daily. [Workers] are yes-men. They are ass-kissers. ... All this, hoping to get ahead, and it works, because the supervisors eat it up.”
Experts and workers say this reverence for low-level supervisors may be strengthened by aspects of Southern culture. “There is this long tradition in the region of a (sometimes intense) personal identification with the company, especially among floor-level supervisors, [which] undermines solidarity and union organizing,” says Beth English, director of the Program on Women in the Global Community at Princeton University and author of A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry.
English, whose work centers on the textile industry in the South, notes that even as management positions became increasingly professionalized over the past century, with decision-making isolated from the reality of the shopfloor, “upper-level management continued to frame relations between workers and themselves as intimate and personal. The long-standing paternalistic culture of seeing an employer as a benefactor … perpetuated among floor supervisors,” she explains. “The floor supervisor was the embodiment of that personal management style, so … floor supervisors' loyalty to management wasn't framed as disloyalty to the rank and file.”
“One of the rewards of being a supervisor in the South is the power that you wield over the people that work for you,” agrees former Volkswagen worker Gravett. “When this power is threatened, many members of management go to extremes to keep their power. Harassment and the targeting of employees that threaten the system that gives management their power is fairly common.”
Indeed, Spencer, the worker who first went on the record to allege unsanctioned union-busting by low-level supervisors, says he is receiving blowback for speaking to In These Times.
"I have already alienated myself from all supervision with the quote I gave you election night," says Spencer. "They are definitely going to get me when they get the chance. Hopefully we unionize someday and I still work there by then."
Other workers interviewed by In These Times during the UAW campaign say that since that defeat, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over the workers who campaigned for the union. Spencer says that several pro-union workers have been transferred from the finishing area of the plant, where turnover is low, to the much more physically strenuous assembly line of the plant, where turnover is much higher.
Lichtenstein says that the fact that Volkswagen did not discipline managers and salaried employees for campaigning against the union raises questions about Volkswagen’s true commitment to its neutrality agreement, which also barred the union from visiting workers unsolicited in their homes or making any negative statements about working conditions at Volkswagen.
“If VW managers from foremen on up were involved in anti-union activities, by word or deed, when the policy of the company was neutrality, then those same lower-level managers should have been disciplined for violating company policy,” says Lichtenstein. “In anti-union campaigns all across America, it is standard operating procedure for top management to discipline, transfer or fire any supervisor who is not fully engaged in the effort to stop the union,” he continues. “This is a reactionary feature of American labor law, but to the extent that top management can wield such power, then the hammer should also fall on foremen and supervisors when they are insufficiently neutral or even pro-union when that is company policy.”
The codes of masculinity
Going forward, Cliett and other pro-union workers see their task as reprogramming their fellow employees so that they no longer see kowtowing to their supervisors as the only way to secure protection at work. Instead, they hope workers will learn to rely on solidarity and collective action.
But in addition to the union-busting efforts of low-level supervisors, pro-union workers are up against codes of masculine self-reliance that hold great sway with the predominantly white and male workforce at the Volkswagen facility.
“There is a kind of machismo to the ‘I don't need no union to speak for me’ attitude,” says Feinauer, one of the few women working the line at the VW plant.
Those codes were on full display during a February 12 meeting of Southern Momentum, an outside group that backed the “No 2 UAW” anti-union committee at the plant. "Nobody is going to fight for Mike Jarvis like Mike Jarvis,” said Jarvis, one of the workers behind No 2 UAW. “Mike Jarvis is going to fight for his family—and that's the guys on the line. So we can handle our own issues.”
Cornell School of Industry and Labor Relations Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner says this kind of mentality helps explain why anti-unionism frequently appeals to working-class white men.
Anti-union campaigns, she says, typically combine threats with the promise that “real men can work hard through tough times [to earn] just rewards.” This ideology emphasizes that “there are lots of white men who started out poor just like them who made it all on their own to the very top, and surely they stayed as far away from unions as they could to get there," Bronfenbrenner says.
By contrast, she says, “Women and people of color know that they never would have survived without their support networks and community allies. Nor do they have any reason to trust any employer who says, ‘Stick with me and some day you will make it to the top,’ because the people who are telling them that are the same white men who are sexually and racially harassing them.”
Indeed, union-busters often play on notions of self-reliance and independence, as per one of the arguments advanced publicly by Don Jackson: that a union is “a third party that drives a wedge between management and employees.” In Martin Jay Levitt’s seminal 1993 book, Confessions of a Union Buster, he brags that one of his favorite opening lines in anti-union sessions was to ask a married worker if he liked sleeping with his wife. The man would blush, but then would often say yes. Levitt would then ask, “How would you like it if your mother-in-law slept between you and your wife every night?” and explain in demasculinizing terms that this was what a union would do.
But the pro-union Volkswagen workers point out that the tough-guy ideal, if left unchecked, can also drive workers over the edge.
Gravett, who comes from a family of poor white farmers in Dayton, Tenn., knows this all too well. “My dad’s father committed suicide because he got sick and he couldn’t work in the field anymore,” says Gravett. “When he was 9 years old, they would leave a plow at the edge of the field, pack him lunch and feed him breakfast and send him out in the field. When my granddaddy couldn’t work in the fields anymore [at 46], he wasn’t an asset to his family anymore, he was a burden, [and that drove him to suicide].”
To injured worker Hunter, this shows an inherent contradiction of the culture of masculinity: Men must never complain about their work, even if doing so breaks them and means they can no longer do their job.
“Here I’m supposed to be this big strong man. I’m supposed to provide for my family,” says Hunter. “Now all of a sudden, I was sentenced to sit in the house.”
Ironically, the ethos of independence that fueled the anti-union argument didn’t extend to its funding. Southern Momentum raised some $100,000 for anti-union billboards, flyers and 800 T-shirts, as well as a slick, well-produced anti-union website. Of this money, “not one of us [workers] raised a penny,” No 2 UAW Committee leader Mike Burton told In These Times.
‘Anne Braden Southerners’
In the days following the UAW loss, many prominent labor analysts, such as Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, were quick to dismiss any missteps by the UAW, instead blaming the loss almost entirely on a Southern culture of resentment dating back to the Civil War.
“In much of the white South, particularly among the Scotch-Irish descendants of Appalachia, the very logic of collective bargaining runs counter to the individualist ethos,” wrote Los Angeles native Harold Meyerson in a column for the American Prospect entitled “When Culture Eclipses Class.” “It was no great challenge for UAW opponents to depict the union as the latest in a long line of Northern invaders.”
It’s true that Chattanooga’s bloody legacy in the Civil War played a large role, rhetorically and psychologically, in the union fight on the same ground a century-and-a-half later. Anti-union forces went so far as to compare the UAW drive to the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, in which the Confederacy defeated Union troops.
“Today Southeastern Tennessee faces invasion from another union—an actual labor union, the United Auto Workers (UAW),” Grover Norquist’s top anti-union consultant, Matt Patterson, wrote in a Chattanooga Times Free Press op-ed that was later turned into a pamphlet and handed out to workers. “One hundred and fifty years ago ... the people of Tennessee routed such a force in the Battle of Chickamauga.”
But not all Southerners read their history this way. In the days following the union defeat, Michael Gilliland, head of the pro-labor community group Chattanooga for Workers (and my host during my trip to Chattanooga), complained about how Northerners analyzed the UAW loss by relying on a blanket characterization of Southern culture. Gilliland describes himself as an “Anne Braden Southerner,” after the white Kentuckian anti-racist crusader. A civil rights activist, Braden became ensnared in a legal battle after she purchased a home in her name for a black family in 1954. The home was located in a Louisville neighborhood with a restrictive covenant keeping out blacks, and Braden faced criminal charges of sedition, though they were later dropped.
To try to define the South solely by its role in the Civil War, Gilliland believes, is a gross oversimplification of the struggles that have always been waged by some white Southerners against the mainstream culture of oppression. Gilliland points to the religious white Southerners who marched in solidarity on the Trail of Tears with Cherokees and died doing so, as well as those who took up guns in the Coal Creek War of 1891 to fight the use of lease convict labor, leading Tennessee to become one of the first Southern states to end the practice in 1896.
Even the Civil War itself has a mixed legacy, says Gilliland. "There were huge divisions of power in the South during the Civil War, and that inequality is still evident,” he says. There is a long tradition of lower-class whites in the South who, while not necessarily anti-racist, advocated for economic equality because their wages were driven down by slave labor and then, after the Civil War, by the low wages paid to African Americans.
Those divisions were on display during the Battle of Chattanooga, which followed the Union’s defeat at Chickamauga in September 1863. Gilliland feels an affinity with the poor white Southerners from nearby Bledsoe County, Tenn., who volunteered to fight for the Union during the battle because they were pro-free labor and anti-planter class. Also among the men who fought in that battle were “Nickajack” free-labor fighters: Appalachian men from Eastern Tennessee and Northern Alabama who viewed the Confederacy as the pet cause of the rich and engaged in guerilla warfare behind Confederate lines for years. (This mix of these forces was complex: Fighting alongside the pro-free-labor contingent were other men from Eastern Tennessee who, while not necessarily anti-slavery, fought for the North out of reasons of national loyalty or distrust of those who wanted to secede.)
After Chickamauga, retreating Union troops were besieged for nearly two months. A breakthrough came in November 1863, when 14,000 Union troops departed from a hill called Orchard Knob (which faces Gilliland’s house), for what would become known as the Battle of Chattanooga. At the head of the column was the German-born Union Brigadier General August Willich of the 32nd Indiana. Willich had resigned his commission in the Prussian Army in 1846 and commanded an armed faction of the Communist League in Germany’s 1848 Revolution, with Friedrich Engels serving as his aide-de-camp. After the failure of the 1848 Revolution, Willich emigrated to America and volunteered as an officer in the Union Army because of his Communist and anti-slavery views.
As Union troops advanced that day in November, they were taking heavy casualties. But as Nation writer John Nichols—a native of of Union Grove, Wis.—loves to recount, in the desperate moments that followed, 1st Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment picked up the regimental flag from a fallen color bearer. MacArthur charged the hill, shouting “On Wisconsin!”—a battle cry that would echo again during the pro-labor occupation of Wisconsin State Capitol 150 years later. The troops charged onwards and took the top of Missionary Ridge, opening a gateway to the Deep South.
Anti-union forces have won the first round in Chattanooga: Much like the Battle of Chickamauga, the first drive for a union at Volkswagen ended in defeat. But another Battle of Chattanooga has just begun. Once again, it will be decided by a ragtag group—including Germans, Midwesterners, and pro-union Southern whites—fighting in solidarity against the hierarchical, paternalistic aspects of Southern culture.
Gilliland believes that while the challenges are formidable, Southern history shows that a victory at Volkswagen is possible with time and education.
“There are certain themes that play strongly here because they have gone so long unchallenged, like the near total rights of a business owner,” he says. “Most people have honestly never heard the other side; they've never been really challenged to think through the inequalities of power, how wages are set, the profitability of their labor, etc.”
“In the same way, most whites have virtually no understanding of the black experience here,” Gilliland continues. “They have never been taught any history past [World War II], know nothing about the civil rights movement or Jim Crow, much less about mass incarceration or the effect of the War on Drugs on communities of color ... In this sense, there is an aspect of Southern culture that is an insulator, but it isn't something natural or unique to us. There is a hump set by the status quo, and we have to constantly get over that hump to do real work.”
But ultimately, Gilliland asks, “What does it mean to be Southern? Is the Confederacy really ‘more Southern’ than the civil rights movement? Is an ingrained distrust for unions more South than Moral Monday? Who gets to say?”

Full disclosure: Elk’s mother, Cynthia Holden Elk, was a member of the United Auto Workers before the Volkswagen plant she worked at in Westmoreland, Pa. closed in 1988. UAW is a website sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.