Where workers have power

March 27, 2012

Gregg Shotwell, a retired veteran of GM and Delphi, and author of Autoworkers Under the Gun: Live Bait & Ammo, looks at how Occupy can connect with workers' power.

We the People are at war.
We need to develop soldiers, not career opportunists.
It will take time and patience.
There will be set backs and victories.
Given time and effort,
the law of multiplication will prevail.
If one goes out and trains two soldiers,
and they go out and do the same,
and this continues, we will have our army.
We the People are the Union
-- Miguel X. Chavarria, "Soldiers of Solidarity"

THE OCCUPY movement has a genuine desire to connect to the labor movement. The trouble is, the labor movement is lying on a gurney in an alley waiting for Democrats to wheel it into ER.

The Occupy movement can't afford to wait for moribund union officials to wake up, or Democrats to come to the rescue and apologize for NAFTA; apologize for deserting single-payer health care; apologize for abandoning the Employee Free Choice Act; apologize for the absence of trade laws that protect jobs rather than the slobs who live off unearned income; apologize for the deliberate avoidance of an anti-striker replacement law and the long overdue repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley law.

Nurses marching in support of the Occupy movement
Nurses marching in support of the Occupy movement (David Shankbone)

Likewise, the Occupy movement can't wait for Obama to order the National Guard to protect citizens exercising their constitutional rights of assembly and free speech.

The counsel of a lesser evil is to vote for despair. We need activists, not lobbyists. We need soldiers of solidarity, not celebrity liberals and union officials.

Unions have shown support for the Occupy movement, but unions are not anti-capitalist. They don't want to change the system so much as modify it. The dearth of social movement unionism today is largely the result of narrow interest bargaining: what's in it for my little corner of the labor market, rather than the movement.

Unions spend more time and money campaigning for Democrats than organizing workers. It's no surprise that union bureaucrats are on a mission to hitch the Occupy movement to the Democrats' wagon and Obama's reelection.

I BELIEVE the goal of the Occupy movement is to empower rank-and-file citizens rather than one of the plutocratic parties. I believe there are no short-term solutions. I believe when workers take power into their own hands, we have the possibility of a solution that works for everyone, rather than the 1 percent that lives off unearned income.

Workers' rights are defined and enforced by struggle. We can't vote our way to power, and if the Occupy movement isn't committed to the redistribution of power, we may as well fold up the tents (of verbal protest) and go live beneath the overpass (of plutocratic government).

If we want to win like sit-down strikers won in the 1930s, we will have to occupy the seat of capital's power, which isn't Wall Street, but rather the workplace.

Wall Street is the bleachers. Wall Street is a front for bookies. The real game is on the gridiron of work where wealth is created. The real players aren't brokers, politicians and bankers. The real players are workers. When workers stop, the game is over.

Workers' power is the strike, not the vote. A strike leverages workers' power because it curtails profit, and profit is all the one percent care about.

I believe Occupy is right to recognize the power of labor. A general strike is not only what's needed, it is something many workers believe in. But it is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because it would require the cooperation of union officials, and union officials, ideologically bankrupt and strategically bereft, are busy collaborating with the bossing class.

Union bureaucrats don't want to change the system, they want to plea bargain. We have documented evidence, called union contracts, which prove that union officials are willing to cut wages and benefits and eliminate pensions. What they object to is laws that limit their power to make concessions for workers on behalf of their business partners.

The partnership between business and union officials has led to the social decadence of two-tier wages, whereby new hires are paid as much as 50 percent less, and then told to save for their own damn retirement.

Why would a young Occupier want to join the United Auto Workers? A new hire at General Motors today makes less than I make in retirement and doesn't have a pension to look forward to. The union-management partnership is an LLC--a limited liability collaboration. We can't trust it.

Union officials do not have an alternative to capitalism and corporate dominance. They suffer from a sort of Stockholm syndrome. They identify with their captors. They want to be partners in the business of exploiting workers for profit.

Union officials were eager to redirect the Wisconsin uprising away from direct action and core to core class conflict and toward electoral procedures because they were frightened by workers' growing consciousness of their own power.

Union officials are reluctant to support even a one-day symbolic general strike, not because they fear legal repercussions, but because they fear what would happen if workers sensed their authentic power and the sleeping giant awakened.

THE OCCUPY movement does not need to rely on bureaucrats or celebrity liberals to thrive and grow. Occupy is a rank-and-file movement, and its leaders are the genuine citizens united against the 1 percent who control the economy, the government, the unions, the television, the consumer culture, and both plutocratic parties.

I believe the Occupy Movement should appeal directly to workers in the trenches rather than union officials safely ensconced in offices with their six-figure salaries, their Hummer-style health plans, their guaranteed pensions, and their addictions to corporate subservience.

If we want to appeal to union and non-union workers, we must first recognize their needs. Workers are not idealists. They may have ideals, they may pursue ideals, but the job is a means to an end: bills.

Workers are, for good reasons, practical strategists. When workers take risks, their families are in jeopardy. That's why U.S. corporations prefer health insurance controlled by employers. It gives them excessive power especially in the event of a strike. That's why soldiers of solidarity, like the Wobblies of old, say, "Strike on the inside."

"Work to rule," or what Elizabeth Gurley Flynn called "sabotage," may be a viable option for the Occupy movement to engage and advocate. In 1916, Flynn wrote, "Sabotage is not physical violence; sabotage is an internal industrial process."

One hundred years ago, in the IWW newspaper, Solidarity, Frank Bohn wrote, "Sabotage means strike and stay in the shop. Striking workers thus are enabled to draw pay and keep out scabs while fighting capitalists."

The bossing class has perverted the traditional meaning of sabotage into malicious destruction of property. They must have looked into their own souls for the new definition.

I wrote about this in the book Autoworkers Under the Gun:

When Ford designs vehicles that roll over or blow up on impact, it's sabotage. When GM sells out, shuts down, spins off, and thereby guts the city of Flint, it's sabotage. When Delphi builds all its new plants outside the U.S. while closing American factories, it's sabotage. When CEOs lay off thousands of workers and reward themselves with multi-million dollar perks, it's sabotage. When the president of the United States commits soldiers to war under false pretenses, bankrupts the treasury with lavish rewards to his cronies, and encourages a trade policy that exports American jobs, it's not patriotism, it's sabotage.

Workers are not saboteurs. Labor creates wealth, bosses exploit it. Labor builds community. Bosses prey upon it.

Work to rule or "strike on the inside" is viable for three reasons:

1. Because profit is all the bosses care about. Until you shut off the profit faucet, the bossing class won't listen. They'll throw job applications to McDonalds at you.

2. Because production of goods and services is the true source of workers' power.

3. Because Work to Rule puts power in the hands of rank-and-file workers rather than bureaucrats.

The prevalence of lockouts, scabs, and outsourcing coupled with the scantiness of legal protection makes strikes a high-risk occupation. Work to rule is a lower risk because it stifles efficiency and cuts profit by following the boss's orders.

How can following the boss's orders obstruct work? When the boss make all the decisions, the result is more lethal than sabotage.

In strict adherence to Murphy's Law, the boss is the dullest blade in the tool box promoted to the highest level of his or her incompetence. The higher you go up the ladder, the less anyone knows about how goods and services are actually produced and delivered.

So, the stated objective of work to rule is to kick every decision up to the highest level of incompetence.

The unstated objective is to sabotage the production of goods and the delivery of services by withholding workers' knowledge and skill from the boss.

Here's a simple and common example of industrial sabotage. The machine stops. The boss says, "What's wrong?" I shrug and say, "I don't know." He asks the job setter, who shrugs, "I don't know." He asks an electrician, who shrugs, "I don't know." Then we all look at the boss, and he starts sweating because he knows that we know that he is the only one who really doesn't know.

Now who's boss?

When the production or delivery of goods and services drops, cost punches profit out. Which explains why work to rule can be an effective way to leverage rank-and-file power while protecting workers from retaliation.

If you follow the bosses' orders, you can't be disciplined. If you strike on the inside, you can't be replaced by scabs. If you don't give your knowledge to the boss for free, then he or she will have to make all the decisions, and we all know where that leads.

AYN RAND had it all wrong. When the boss shrugs, no one gives a shit. When workers shrug, production stops and profit grinds to a halt.

Transit workers in New York City could shrug their shoulders and shut down the city for an afternoon. If trucks at West coast ports stalled, drivers could shrug and clog the docks till the sun went down. Teamsters, like longshore workers don't have to cross picket lines. If Occupy throws up a picket, Teamsters or longshore workers can just shrug. A single supplier can shut down multiple factories. If production workers and trades shrug together, output would tumble like dominoes.

Work to rule at isolated work sites will not shut down Wall Street, but if strike on the inside goes viral, the impact could be more effective than an officially sanctioned strike.

More effective because courts couldn't impose injunctions; because union officials couldn't aid and abet their business partners by calling it off prematurely; because work to rule is more than an internal industrial process, it's an invocation for workers to govern collectively.

The Association of Flight Attendants used a strategy they coined CHAOS: "Create Havoc Around Our System." CHAOS maximized the impact of the job action while minimizing the risk to workers. Surprise strikes and random actions rendered the airline unmanageable.

The UAW used to employ a tactic called rolling strikes. One plant would go on strike for a day and then go back to work. Then another plant would go on strike for a day and then call it off. Then another plant would disrupt production. As soon as one plant went back to work another plant would shut down. The corporation became ungovernable and eventually willing to negotiate.

If CHAOS goes viral, it could impede production and the delivery of services on a large scale in much the same fashion as rolling strikes. And it could protect workers from retaliation because it's a guerrilla tactic. And the liberals in the union or the government couldn't rein it in because CHAOS is a dog without a leash.

Protests can express objection, but, as Mario Savio said during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964:

There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious...you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop...And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

Yes, it will take time and patience, but appealing directly to rank-and-file workers is a short cut compared to working with union bureaucrats who are determined to detour the energy and enthusiasm of Occupy into the drainage ditch of the Democratic Party where all good movements go to die.

Work to rule relies on the wit and wisdom of workers. Asking workers to use their own creativity to fight the bossing class, and to determine their own level of involvement and risk, shows respect for workers' personal lives, respect for workers' intelligence, respect for the power inherent in the working class.

There are no short-term solutions.

It will take time and patience. There will be set backs and victories. Given time and effort, the law of multiplication will prevail. If one goes out and trains two soldiers, and they go out and do the same, and this continues, we will have our army. We the People are the Union.

Occupy your workplaces. Occupy your hospitals. Occupy your unions, your agencies, your schools.

We the People are the solution.

Further Reading

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