The Bell Tolls for Thee, Motherfucker

| Filed under Our writings

Sketch contribution by Monica Kostas

Sketch contribution by Monica Kostas

 

Get ready to never see bus drivers the same way again. This week we feature a story by John O’Reilly who takes us through the route of his daily tribulations as a city bus driver in Minneapolis.

 

 

Ding.

You’re just driving along, keeping your eyes open, checking side streets and blind alleys, and it happens. No warning. It jolts you, and you instinctively look down the road for the next blue reflective bus stop sign. If you know the route well, you can visualize exactly where the sign is. If it’s a route you don’t drive often, you push your eyes as far as you can see to find the next one in the thicket of poles on the side of the road.

It’s not until you’re a bus driver that you realize exactly how many signs crowd the boulevards of our cities. Only one among them is the one that your passenger has signaled for you to stop at, and you have the short time between registering the sound in your brain and where the sign sits to apply the full weight of your brakes, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of air pressure, to slow a half a million dollar vehicle to a stop without taking out a side mirror, hitting a biker or crushing a car, and maneuver it smoothly to the side of the road at exactly the spot where the passenger intends to alight. Every time, hundreds of times a day, it takes all your concentration to accomplish this simple, single task.

Ding.

It depends on the bus. Sometimes, on older vehicles, the bell is a tinny, high pitched metallic ping that grates the ears. While annoying, you never mistake it for anything else. On some newer buses, the bell is a gentle, computerized chirp, which sometimes escapes your notice. Hopefully you notice that your “stop request” light has illuminated or you see the passenger stumble towards the exit and realize what’s going on. Otherwise you have at least one, and sometimes multiple, irate commuters yelling at you to stop as you fly down the street past the sign. This doesn’t upset some drivers but, let’s face it, you, you’re a bit of a perfectionist about work. You feel bad when you fuck up and actually deserve your passengers’ scorn. Not that their scorn would go away if you drove perfectly, it’s a constant, but at least you know that normally you’re really just doing your job as well as you can.

Hopefully, you hear the bell as soon as it sounds. They teach you a lot about “stopping distance” in your training classes when you first start driving. First, your senses need to observe a stimulus: the brake lights of the car in front of you, a child running, a frantically waving hand, the shrill note of the bell. Then your brain needs to interpret what that sound or sight means. Third, you need to make a decision about what to do with that interpretation. Should you slow down? Speed up? Swerve? Honk? Following this, your body actually needs to carry out the action that your brain instructs it to. Finally, the bus responds. You’re not particularly good at math but you know that a 40 foot long bus moving at 40 miles an hour takes at least an eighth of a mile or more to come to a complete stop, depending on road conditions. Add this all together and you have what they call your “stopping distance.” Usually it’s quite a ways, so you need to be constantly on alert for what’s coming. No breaks behind the wheel, just brakes. Haha.

Ding.

You dream about being two seconds late to clock in and your dispatcher is telling you that he’s sorry, there’s nothing he can do, your work for the day has already been given to another driver, you better go talk to your manager because you’re going to get hit with an absence for this one. You dream about getting lost on route, your passengers screaming at you as you turn left, right, left, right, unable to figure out how to get back on track. You dream about being unable to find a relief point, the place where you take over for another driver out in the middle of a route. A particularly vivid relief dream has you running through the streets of an unknown downtown, praying that the driver you were to have relieved has not yet called into the control center and noted your absence from the appointed spot. Giant terraced plazas, wide rivers with bridges that only lead in the wrong direction, buildings that go on for blocks and blocks, parks that sprout up out of nowhere, you sprint through them without even knowing where you are going, hoping that you will find your bus driving through rush hour traffic. But you don’t ever dream of the bell.

Perhaps it is the bell’s banality. Hundreds of times a day you hear the bell and you obey its commands each time. More than any other part of your job, the bell is what disciplines you. Bus drivers routinely break traffic laws, or at least company traffic policies, with relative impunity. Perhaps a slap on the wrist by management, and that’s assuming you’re caught. Stories spread of drivers being pulled over by cops while on route, but that’s a once a year phenomenon at most. Nor is the schedule a particular disciplinary force. Management tells you to throw the schedule out the window as soon as you get behind the wheel. The union contract even specifies that drivers will not be disciplined for taking part in an illegal slow-down by driving behind schedule. You only get in trouble for being early, or “running hot” as they call it, never for being late. The only person who suffers from driving behind schedule, besides the passengers, whom no one really cares about, is you. Drivers get no allocated break time, only “recovery time” at the end of the line. If you have a 15 minute break on your time card and you’re 15 minutes late to the end of the line, you just turn right around and keep driving. Some drivers don’t mind this, 8 to 10 hours or more of straight driving, but it drives you crazy and you relish your 10 minute bathroom breaks, text updates and Facebook checking. Still, this is just your preference, no one above you ever really gets on you about the schedule.

Ding.

No, it is really only the bell that commands you. When you’re on the line, you are the captain of your ship. You are judge, jury, and if not executioner, then you have a direct line to the cops who, as recent events have shown with terrible clarity, are willing to carry out that function. You are the boss. If you’re smart, as you are, you know that you should wield this responsibility wisely, and know that there are few occasions when it’s actually worth it to get into a dispute with a customer. You remember who you are: a 20-something bespectacled white boy driving a city bus in some of the toughest parts of town. No one respects you because of your uniform, and really, why should they? Don’t start shit, don’t bother disputing the fare. Even management tells you it’s not worth it. The vast majority of driver assaults spring from fare disputes. Plus, you’re a communist, you tell yourself as another shithead kid lies to you about how he doesn’t have $1.75, you believe the buses should be free anyway. Tell him to take a seat. Don’t get rattled, you’re in charge, it’s fine. And eventually he too will ring the bell.

Forget the fare, forget the schedule, forget the customers, just drive. And you do your best to do so. The best thing about the bus is that the windshield is your entire field of vision. You are piloting 34 tons of steel, plastic and diesel down the road, all you can see is the city in every direction around you, and let’s face it, you’re good at this shit. You maneuver through poorly parked delivery trucks, streets made narrow by snow piles, idiot drivers who shouldn’t even have a license, every motherfucker texting behind the wheel. Your bus is about six feet wide, and you swear you’ve crawled it through tight spots that were six feet one inch at least dozens of times. Using just your tiny mirrors, you make the ass end of your bus, a very long forty feet behind you (sixty feet when you drive the articulated buses) do whatever you need it to do. You actually hold these peoples’ lives in your hands, every single day. But just when you silently celebrate another victory over the forces of the city, you are pulled back into reality by that treble note coming from above your head. It reminds you who is really in charge and what the premise of this whole enterprise really is. You’re not Evel Knievel, brother, you just drive a city bus.

Ding.

It’s a lonely job. It doesn’t seem like it, as you’re surrounded by people all day long, but ten seconds of pleasantries repeated all day long doesn’t add up to very much to an extrovert like yourself. You always thought that bus drivers were friendly and talkative. It turns out that’s just a strategy deployed to neutralize potential problem passengers by making you harder to hate. Sometimes you feel like an animal in a zoo. A whole day of petty interaction with people around you – “Howdy sir. Thank you. Cold today, huh? Yeah but it’s gonna be warmer this weekend. How are you ma’am? Thank you. Hey there little man! You hanging out with mom today? Hey man, how you doin’? You say you don’t have it today? Alright, why don’t you just take a seat for me? Hey there ma’am, you feeling okay today? Thank you. Alright now. Have a good day, sir.” – and none of it means anything at all. You can’t imagine what it’s like for your coworkers who drive the light rail train, trapped alone in a little box all day, moving up and down the same line of railroad. Sounds like hell.

At least you drive in the part of the city that you live in, so you sometimes see friends on or around your bus. A five minute half-hearted conversation with someone you vaguely know from college or an old neighbor makes the entire day of work seem infinitely better. Sometimes you’ll go an entire week without talking to anyone for more than a few seconds, and you’ll find yourself drinking a lot every night or desperately texting your friends to hang out. No wonder so many of your coworkers are gruff or weird when you see them around the garage, it’s a job that caters to loners. Maybe it’s the job that makes people into loners.

Ding.

You think. A lot. Trapped in your own head, you can’t help but let your mind wander. One eye is always on the road, planning your next move or remembering your next turn. But once you get a route down pat, it becomes incredibly easy to drift off into your own world. Hell, it’s hard not to. You hum, whistle, or when you’re lucky enough to have an empty bus, shout out the lines to whatever song is stuck in your head. You rehearse conversations that you would like to have had with a shitty customer, or with your parents, or with someone who wronged you in the past, or with your bosses. Don’t get too deep in thought though, easy as it might be, because it’s always right there, ready to spring. Bus drivers could all be philosophers but their thoughts could never string along any longer than a minute.

Ding.

Back on track. Back to work. Look up. Forward, to the right, down one block, two blocks. There’s the sign. Pull your right foot off the accelerator and let the retarder kick in and slow you down. Press your left foot down on the microphone button, lean over the dangling mic, and announce the cross street. Move your left foot to the right turn signal so that the idiots fuming at being stuck behind the bus know that you’re about to give them their chance to blow past you. Move your right foot to the brake and gently, barely, lovingly touch it so that the brake just slightly kicks in and the bus jerks forward as lightly as possible. Then slowly apply pressure with your right foot to the brakes, making sure your left foot stays pressed down on the right turn signal, as you “push-pull” the wheel slowly to the right with your hands.

When you’re exactly five feet from stopping, use your left hand to throw the front door open and unlock the back door, conscious that the pneumatics will take the three seconds between here and a dead stop to actually open the door. Prepare for polite people to say thank you, to which you will respond “have a good day” or “have a good night” or “take it easy” or “alright” as the situation requires. Look pretty girls in the eyes as you say this, for stupid sexist reasons that you can’t defend or explain or resist. Everyone else you can just automatically respond to with your mouth as your eyes look in your rear internal mirror, watching the last person move through the back door, or your right outside mirror, as the rear door closes behind the last person. Close the doors, wait for the rear door to shut (while it’s open it automatically enables the brakes), push your left foot on the left turn signal, look in your right mirror, your internal mirror, your left mirror, the front door to your right, then again, your right mirror, your internal mirror, your left mirror, squeeze the brakes to unlock them, gently touch your right foot on the accelerator, push-pull the wheel to the left and take off. Then do the whole thing perfectly again. Again. Again. For eight more hours.

Ding.

You have to size people up quickly, you’re pretty good at it, but you always second-guess yourself. Is that just your garden variety drunk or is he the one who will fall out of his seat and bust his head open if you take that turn a bit too quickly? Is that just another quiet untreated homeless psychotic, harmlessly mumbling to herself about the president, or is she the one with the knife? Is that just another young disaffected man acting real tough in front of his buddies or is he the one who actually has something to prove on a crowded rush hour bus? Is that just another snippy middle class white lady or is she the one who will call and complain about your attitude and driving? It’s actually this last one that you worry the most about. Vitriol and violence you can deal with, management is worse.

You worry. It’s hard not to, when you’re wound as tightly as you are. You’ve always worried about everything and now that you’re stuck in your own head for most of the day, your worries grow wild. You never see any of your old friends anymore, you work such a weird schedule as a low seniority driver. Will your friends decide it’s too much work to see you? Will you lose all the people who you care so much about and be alone? Why did you decide to rent a one bedroom apartment for the first time in your life, just because with your union wages you could finally afford it? Your girlfriend has been spending so much time with that girl she has a crush on. Does she love you as much as you love her? Will she leave you for this new girl? Is she embarrassed of your job? Almost 90% of your male coworkers self-report being overweight and diabetes runs rampant. Will your sedentary job and your inconvenient hours, breaks spent eating gas station food, lead you with no option but to gain weight? You have a college degree and you have realized that what you really want to do is become a teacher. But you’ve done nothing your entire adult life but work in blue collar jobs. Will you ever find a way into being able to be paid for the thing that you’re best at? Or will you just volunteer teaching English on your days off at the immigrant community center and drive this fucking bus until you retire? Between the rings of the bell, you have nothing but time to sit and ponder, to worry.

Ding.

You are required to have a certain level of health to drive the bus. When you got your Department of Transportation-mandated physical just before you were officially hired, the nurse said your blood pressure was too high. “Oh shoot, I’ll have to get that looked at,” you said. No, she told you, too high to work at this job. You could have a heart attack behind the wheel. Your pulse started blasting in your ears. Unemployed, and having burned through all your savings, you had spent weeks pursuing this job to be denied it because your heart ticked a little fast? This possibility had never occurred to you. They sent in the doctor. Have you had any coffee this morning? “Sure, of course.” You feeling a bit nervous? “Yes sir, she just told me I’d not be able to get a job because of my blood pressure.” The doctor looked at your results for a moment. You stared, heart racing, praying. He shrugged. Okay, we’ll let you go. You had the feeling that he just frankly didn’t give a shit. A cut-rate doctor practicing medicine at an occupational health clinic on the side of the highway, finding ways to screw workers out of compensation claims, on the payroll of their bosses, what did he care? If this bus driver keels over behind the wheel, we’ll just say hey, he said he’d had some coffee before coming in for his physical, we didn’t know.

Now you take a pill every day for your blood pressure. It’s gotten higher since that physical, since you started driving the bus, but now you’re working on it. At the doctor’s office, the irony that the job which keeps driving your blood pressure up is the same one that provides you the insurance to pay to keep it down is not lost upon you. You and the nurses chuckle about it. “So how long do I have to take these pills for?” you ask, a newcomer to the world of chronic conditions. Well, until you die, the nurses say. Probably from a heart condition.

Every day you leave work and your shoulders hurt. They kill. They shouldn’t. None of your coworkers or trainers have this happen to them. As long as you’re properly employing the “push-pull” method, your rotator cuff shouldn’t be damaged. But you know that it’s not something that you’re doing to your body, it’s something your body is doing to you. Your stress rides high in your shoulders. You’re too neurotic for this job. Yet here you are. Stuck. Making a living wage for the first time in your life. Your insurance is beyond just good, it’s actually amazing. Big ups to your local on that account. But it means you’re trapped. Ouch. Take a few ibuprofen. Remember the money. Hope that tonight as you sleep on your shitty mattress that you will somehow relax, that when you awaken your shoulders will be less tense. Hope that you feel less sad, less snared.

Ding.

Brought back into reality, you look to the right. Where is the stop? One, two, maybe three blocks away, your eyes search for it in the darkness, in the bright sunlight. At night you stare down the stops and drive slowly, even as your schedule tells you to speed up because it’s not rush hour and probably you’ll have fewer customers. People wearing dark colors quickly fade away into the night and you’ll drive right past them, maybe get in trouble for passing someone up. The dusk trip is the worst, your circadian rhythm naturally making you sleepy while the light from the sun fades. Daylight means squinting, especially after rain or when the snow melts. With your crappy vision, you need glasses and can’t bring yourself to wear prescription sunglasses. Your father has the worst squint-lines on the sides of his eyes, making him look considerably older and happier than he is. Already, you see the same lines mar your otherwise youthful but sardonic face. Goddammit. You thought you had a lot more years before you started turning into your father.

When it pours you can’t see anything, but you pull over and let everyone on and tell them that you hope they’re not too wet. You just wave them past and don’t charge them because you’d have to be inhuman to have a line of people standing out in the rain, waiting to pay. When it’s snowing you’re so late that no one is mad at you because they think that you’re the next bus anyway. You’re so far behind that you don’t get any breaks for eight hours, but at least the passengers are grateful. When it’s foggy you drive slower than the schedule wants you to, eyes straining in the gloom, but good God what a beautiful view when the skyscrapers downtown shine through the clouds. When it’s sunny you curse that you aren’t out with your friends enjoying the weather, drinking a beer on a patio somewhere. Still, you open the driver’s window all the way, sit as far back in your chair as you can, and tell yourself that at least you’re getting paid to be outside, the sun tanning your left arm.

You try to have a positive attitude. This job may be hard but at least you get some independence. After all, it’s your bus. You’re the chief and you decide how to govern. You’re just some asshole, thank goodness you’ve found something that you’re reasonably good at. You try to sit back and cruise down the road, enjoying the sights. But then –

Ding.

The sound is a needle pricking your ear, deep in the guts of the machine, pulling you out of your quiet thoughts and that moment of contentment. Reminding you what it is that you’re here to do.

Ding.

You look up, to the right, down the block, now where’s that damn sign?

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We Carry Our Failures

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Vicious Care - sketch by Monica Kostas

Vicious Care – sketch by Monica Kostas

 

This week’s piece comes to us from fellow editor Scott Nappalos, a healthcare worker in Miami. He writes about the challenges of salvaging human interactions and compassion while working in a profiteering healthcare system that renders impotent patients and healthcare workers alike.

We Carry Our Failures:
Working With People in a Dehumanizing System

My patient would come back to the hospital just as soon as he left. We’ll call him Mr. Jones. His arm was mangled by a rare cancer that took his digit and much of his sensation and movement. He wore a hat over his thinning hair that read ‘Vietnam Veteran’. Rare cancer, God only knows what he was exposed to there. He took to me and would greet me and discuss his condition even when I wasn’t assigned to him, “it’s miserable” looking to his hand “living like this”.

Everyone took him to be a problem. They accused him of being a drug addict and using the hospital like a hotel for room and board, as he would sneak off the unit to smoke, talk to vets, buy junk food, and tool around outside in his wheelchair. Doctors would discharge him and he’d come right back. No one believed the stories he gave that were enough to get him readmitted, essentially living in the hospital for months despite discharges.

He liked to receive his pain medication intravenously, and always demanded it which didn’t help his reputation. Most health workers in my experience don’t take cancer pain seriously, and its common to find physicians giving minimal medication despite frequent studies showing that pain medications are under prescribed with real detrimental health effects. He was routinely given only minimal oral medications without anything long-acting to smooth out the ups and downs of pain.

Maybe he was addicted, but what does that mean, and what impact does that have with diseases like painful types of cancer where pain is unrelenting and constant? Studies continue to show that pain medication for painful illnesses do not tend to produce debilitating drug addiction in the sense we are used to beyond the course of the disease; addiction is a social disease at least in large point. I wondered what it was like at home that he would constantly return, despite being accused, harassed, and gotten rid of. I wondered what would make him want to be in a hospital more than in the free air of society. Friends and family would visit him, but I had a sinking suspicion that he was scared of the misery he lived in, and feared more than anything being alone; dying alone.

Working with people puts you into situations where you face problems without much to go on, problems made of people’s lives. You rack your brain, maybe even read research, but when faced with a person with needs unfulfilled all your experiences and knowledge can be rendered useless. The system is set up to limit resources and deprive people of basic assistance, usually through trying to extract it from them and their families. The health worker sits between these problems and they bear down on them every day. These failures linger in our minds buried beneath the harsh words, insurmountable work, and caffeine propelling us through long hours, but making appearances in our sleep, in quiet moments, and for those who can’t cope disastrously in our personal lives.

Part of the challenge is to change the narrative around the tug-of-war and where the failure lies. Authorities, medical or political, would have us believe it is individual initiative, professional incompetency, or economic mismanagement. We need to find ways to put into words how the system fails us and what our needs really are. Had my patient been able to verbalize his fears it would have been clear both how valid and truly human his problem was and the bankruptcy of the entire medical establishment.

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On Bluffing

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Rage

Rage – contribution by M. Kostas

 

This week’s piece comes to us by fellow editor at Recomposition, Phineas Gage. In it, he analyzes three instances in different organizing scenarios where bluffing, whether premeditated or spontaneous, helped leverage reactions that would not have otherwise happened. A running theme through these experiences is the desire to struggle, but to struggle together, paired with the glaring fear that people won’t have each other’s backs when push comes to shove. His insight not only lets us in on the small details that can make or break actions, but also shines a light on how every step we take in our organizing, as in our life, is a gamble.

 

 

 

On Bluffing.

by Phineas Gage

All warfare is based on deception.
                                     -Sun Tzu

I.

I was standing there shaking with rage. I was chosen by a few co-workers to try and go upstairs and talk to the supervisors about a problem we were having. Management, in their benevolent and eternal wisdom put us on a floor that was being renovated. It was twenty below zero outside and all that stood between us and outside was a few strips of plastic sheeting. All of us were mad but most of us, including me, were pretty timid. We were all in our late teens and didn’t want to get in trouble.
We were keenly aware that the company was taking us for a ride, but some of us were young single parents, others thought if we just held on another better job would come, and all of us didn’t think we would get much done by trying to fight back. Our hands ached from the cold and our joints were getting stiff. We had to dial three times just to get the numbers right, our fingers were so numb they just weren’t doing what they were supposed to do.
While talking to each other something snapped inside all of us. We worked ourselves into just enough of a frenzy to call the ‘team leader’ over. Jeff the pimply, lanky introvert who monitored our calls came over and recited some platitudes about not being able to move any of the equipment to a warmer floor and returned to his desk at the end of the row. After some bullying on our part he agreed to call up stairs on our behalf. This led to him being told what he just told us.
We went back to our seats and started calling again. After a few minutes we started grumbling again, this led to us agitating each other. Eventually we decided we should send someone upstairs to talk to management. A few people suggested me because I drank on the weekend with the burly skinhead who was the call centre supervisor.
When I entered the office I opened my mouth, my supervisor cut me off and asked me not swear. He was putting me in my place. I started to explain the situation downstairs in a now calm and reasonable manner. He explained to me the same thing we’d been told twice before downstairs. Something inside me snapped. I stayed calm but I started spouting total bullshit.
I cited legislation that didn’t exist, I told him I would call government agencies on them (for the record getting people to work in the freezing cold is perfectly legal in Alberta), and then I said that if they didn’t give us what we wanted we would walk. None of us discussed this, and few of us were ready to do something like that.
He flinched; I winced. He made a call to the owner at her home, at eight o’clock at night. Half an hour later we got moved upstairs to a warmer floor. For the next couple weeks we all held our heads a bit higher at work.

 

II.

Andy and I sat in the Tim Horton’s drinking our coffee and talking to an East African worker by the name of Binyam. He worked at a courier company we were trying to organise. We were explaining the process of unionizing his company to him. He was obviously not against the union; he had a few kids and a wife at home. I told him that it would help his family if they were able to negotiate with the employer. He was still nervous. I told him he had nothing to worry about in signing the card, that he was legally protected and that no one would know he signed the card unless he told someone.
Andy smiled, leaned back in his chair and said that everyone was already on board. The worker asked us why no one told him they had signed, Andy said because they were scared just like him. Binyam could relate to this and understand this so he took the card out of Andy’s hand and said he was in if everyone else was. The thing is they were not already on board. The drive was going well but to say ‘everyone’ was on board was a stretch. We needed more than 50% to sign cards for us to get card check certification, we had just over half what we needed with a few months to go. That put us at bout 30% not 50% and certainly not everybody.
Somehow after that word got out that the campaign was taking off and spreading like wildfire, shortly after that it did. Once word spread that everyone was signing up everyone started to join. Before Andy’s bluff everyone sensed each other’s fear and so they wouldn’t sign a card.

 

III.

Malwinder and Linda walked out of the supervisor’s office; they were frustrated as hell and ready to escalate. They went in trying to address staffing issues, they left the supervisors office and immediately started planning how to put more pressure on management. When they went to the floor with the issues the workers were pissed too, right until they asked them to do something about it. While Malwinder was trying to talk to Pete about the problem, Pete wouldn’t look Malwinder in the eyes.

“Look if we just slow down for a couple days the overtime will drive them crazy and they’ll have to give in”.

“Yeah, but you know not everyone will slow down”, Pete said as he prepped his flyers for the next day.

“Look, all we have to do is stand together you know they’ll buckle after a couple days”.

Pete looked over his glasses, and looped his thumbs through his suspenders and thought about it for a second. “They sure will, if we all stick together, but we won’t, this ain’t the eighties any more’. Pete was referring to a time in the recent past when Letter Carrier depots were a hotbed of militancy. Pete had enough and continued his work turning his back on Malwinder.
As Linda worked the rows of letter carrier cases it became clear that everyone was angry with management, and everyone thought that a slow down would work as long as everyone participated. No one ever said they thought it was a bad idea their big problem was that they thought that nobody else would be on board.
Malwinder and Linda talked about this on their coffee break that afternoon and they hatched a plan. They decided to tell everyone they had a lot of support for the action and that they were going ahead with it.
The next morning they began to work the letter carrier cases and people were much more receptive. Lots of carriers slowed down and they all recorded their overtime, management had a hard time singling people out because so many were on board. It also covered for the newer, slower and more timid letter carriers; they were getting static for taking time to learn the routes that they weren’t familiar with. The budget for the depot soared and management relented, after all it is cheaper to hire more carriers on straight time than it is to squeeze everyone for overtime.

 

Confidence and Class-Consciousness:

Most people are uncomfortable with dishonesty and some of the tactics used above are definitely dishonest. Telling everyone there is strong support can also backfire if you don’t have it and someone calls you on it. There is a fine line between bluffing and lying, and while I am comfortable with a bit of deception towards the boss, like in the first example, the other two examples are different in that they were deception towards co-workers. However it is worth noting I have yet to see a boss call a militant’s bluff; the shadow of an all out workers revolt lurks in the back of the mind of any boss. The fact that a scenario like that seems so hard to get to for most workers is actually pretty plausible to most workplace supervisors is very telling indeed.

The fact that these examples were effective points to something important about the nature of class struggle. Confidence is at least half the game, workers actually want to struggle and they know they are being screwed. What keeps them from struggling is not ‘ideology’ or being brainwashed, they don’t struggle mostly because they are responsible adults and do not want to struggle if nothing will come of it. Most workers at very least have plans for their life that don’t involve work and don’t want to screw these plans up by doing something rash. A lot of people have other people depending on them, spouses, kids and other family members and other dependants and they aren’t going to risk being able to provide for these people if it isn’t going to pay off.

Its easy to be hard on progressives for their dim opinion of workers and no one has a dimmer view of the typical worker than one of those workers themselves. Our society boasts a lot about how democratic it is out of one side of its mouth but it never quite manages to hide a darker side: a deep seated hatred of the ‘ordinary person’. This holds us back as much as anything else; there is no doubt that there are a lot of idiots in the world. There are also a lot of lazy selfish people, but the thing about class struggle is you don’t have to be a genius or a saint to get it. Everyone knows what is going on, the single most important thing a militant can do is not convince workers of the need for a better world. The single most important thing a militant can do is convince workers that the only thing that stands between them and that world is their own fear and distrust of each other.

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May 1st 630pm EST Lines of Work Book Launch Live in Miami!

| Filed under Administrative/housekeeping Our writings

PrintThe South Florida IWW and Recomposition present a live online launch of the new book Lines of Work on 630pm EST May 1st. Two authors will present the book at a Miami bookstore, Books & Books, with readings from the text and discussion. For those outside South Florida, you can tune in by checking the Live stream address the day of the event. The text brings together stories of work and workers from the US, Canada, and the Uk reflecting on their experiences grappling with what they do to earn a living, and struggling for something better.

“Half our waking hours are spent on the job, consuming the lion’s share of our time. Our years are woven with stories of work told around the dinner table, breakroom, and bars. Yet these stories are rarely put into print, investigated, or seen as they should be; as part of workers’ activity to understand and change their lot under capitalism.

LINES OF WORK offers a rare look at life and social relationships viewed from the cubicle, cash register, hospital, factory, and job site. Drawn from the writings of Recomposition, an online project of worker radicals, the text brings together organizers from a handful of countries sharing their experiences with the trouble of working and fighting back.

Rather than professional writers or activists, the authors are workers reflecting on their experiences, aspirations, and how to improve our situation. Through storytelling, they draw out the lessons of workplace woes, offering new paths and perspectives for social change and a new world.” (more…)

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Industrial Unity: A Response to “Locality & Shop”

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foodservworkWe received a number of replies and great discussion from the piece by S Nappalos on the IWW’s locality versus industrial structures. E.A. Martinez has sent a lengthy response raising points of criticism and agreement that is worth engaging. While the discussion centers around structures of the IWW, bigger issues are at hand. In reality the debate centers around the role of the workplace organizer, how they relate to their job and neighborhood, and where we situate their struggles. We’re glad to see this thoughtful reply, and hope it generates some reflection and responses.

E.A. Martinez

The division between local organization and industrial organization – and which should prevail over the other – has been a hot topic of debate within revolutionary unions for decades, and the IWW is no exception. Locality and Shop Inside Revolutionary Unions provides one perspective on whether the local form (the General Membership Branch, or GMB) or the industrial form (the Industrial Union Branch, or IUB) is superior.

After examining attempts by the Portland IWW to build a patchwork of IUBs in the early 2000s, the author concludes that industrial organization is not suited for the present socio-economic conditions in which we find ourselves, or for the present state of the IWW. Rather, we should look to build the IWW as local groups of militants and political radicals who “take [their militancy] with them through their jobs.”

The author points to many Wobblies’ opposition to activism as one of the chief causes for the preference of industrial units over local units, which is not untrue. Many Wobblies have argued that locality-based IWW branches are often mistaken for merely another acronym in a city’s alphabet soup of revolutionary groups, book clubs, NGOs, and non-profits. To combat the perception of the IWW as anything but an industrial union, Wobblies have pushed for more workplace- and industry-based organization, as this will demonstrate to activists that we are in fact a union, and not one of many political clubs. (more…)

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Joe Burn’s review of Lines of Work

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our jobs our storiesJoe Burns, author of the influential book Reviving the Strike put up a review of our new book Lines of Work on his blog. We want to direct to the discussion to the Reviving the Strike blog where he posted it. His comments are flattering and we aspire towards and contribute to the sort of revival he advocates. “Although written in terms of stories and experiences, the book’s approach offers a different approach to union revival, one deeply rooted in the workplace and rooted in the daily experience of workers.” This Saturday we remind our readers near Miami, Florida that there will be a Lines of Work worker story workshop.

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Locality and shop inside revolutionary unions

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autoplant iwwThere’s been a long debate within the revolutionary union movement about structure and specifically about the relationship between locality-based units and workplace/trade/industrial based units. Though not well known, the IWW also had battles with these concepts with different factions trying to abolish the General Recruiting Unions, the predecessor of the General Membership branch uniting all workers based on a local who lacked a Industrial Union Branch, and other trying to support it. The recruiting unions were banned at some periods of IWW history and had to be brought back though not without controversy. Other revolutionary unions such as the CNT of Spain and FORA of Argentina maintained both locality based grouping and workplace based ones. This piece explores the debate around these issues within the IWW and experiences both with locality-units and workplace-units from recent activities, and attempts to get at the issues of our tasks and objectives beyond only looking at structures.

Area, Shop, and Revolution: a case for both locality and workplace unitary organization

Scott Nikolas Nappalos

In the early 2000s a series of experiments were carried out in the IWW that led to the formation of Industrial Union Branches (IUBs). Alongside the handful of IUBs emerged ideas around why IUBs should be prioritized and their superiority to other structures. The IUBs primarily were initiated in the Portland IWW after a series of struggles that produced the largest and most dynamic area for IWW workplace organizing in the union for decades. The Portland IWW ballooned to its peak with membership in the hundreds in the early 2000s after a decade of organizing attempts in the 1990s, and some high profile contract campaigns, strikes, and actions at the turn of the century. As membership grew, Portland moved from a General Membership Branch (GMB) towards IUBs in areas where there were a concentration of members: social service, construction, education, restaurants, grocery/retail, and transportation.

General Membership Branches were created late in the IWW’s life. At it’s peak, the IWW was built on active workplace branches centered in industries. The IWW arose in a time different from ours in which workers were actively seeking out alternatives such as the IWW. Before the IWW existed, groups like the German brewers, Western Federation of Miners, La Resistencia of the Tampa cigar workers, and others openly moved to revolutionary anti-capitalist ideas, and workers struggles moved towards insurrectionary militancy in conflicts with the police, militias, and military. Workers ended up far to the left of the unions through their aspirations for a better world, their actions, and the necessity of confronting a hostile system. The IWW often organized by going to these wildcat strikes, and attempting to organize the striking workers. In other cases radicalized workers would move to the IWW as part of their trajectory against the political and union establishments. In an environment where there was already active workers struggle that outpaced both the political parties and unions of their day, centering the structure of the IWW on workplace structures made sense. Though other formations existed such as Industrial District Councils (where multiple IUBs coordinated in a city, which the Portland IWW also had in existence) and General Recruiting Unions[1] (similar to GMBs today, where workers without IUBs could begin to plan their IUBs), it wasn’t until after the total collapse of the IWW’s workplace presence and in a new regime of State-Labor-Capitalist collaboration that GMBs were proposed. (more…)

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Scabs! Part II: The St. Albert Wildcat

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Image 2014-01-30 6-2This entry is the second part in a two-part story from contributor Phinneas Gage about a wildcat strike by contractors at the Canadian postal service, and continues our coverage of struggles within Canada Post. 

The phone rang irritatingly early, early enough I ignored it the first time. Apparently Lise-Anne called several other executive members after she left a message for me. I later found out the message she left me said: “they’re cutting our pay by 30%, we had a coffee break meeting and we vote unanimously to walk out in response, what do we do now?”

The phone rang again, this time I picked up. “We just walked out, we’re sitting across the street in the Tim Horton’s”. Eight months prior I had talked to the workers at this depot about racial discrimination and harassment one co-worker was facing. They marched on the boss with eight people that sent a strong enough message it put an end to that issue. Even if the racist supervisor was still around he was a lot quieter. The workers became more assertive, and very strong on the floor. A series of small actions built the solidarity among the rural workers to the point where they felt strong enough to fight a change to the work measurement system that was going to cut their pay by almost a third.

“Did you make any demands?” I asked groggily, sometimes folks are so angry they forget to say what they want.

“Yeah, we wanted a repeal of the policy and he told us that the union was going to be upset we did this”.

“What did you say to that?”

“I said we didn’t need their permission to do this, but the local President and Sharon are coming down to talk to us and see what they can do to help”. (more…)

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Scabs: part I

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Image 2014-01-30 This entry is a two-part story from contributor Phinneas Gage about a wildcat strike by contractors at the Canadian postal service, and continues our coverage of struggles within Canada Post. In the course of the strike, union workers had to figure out how to relate to contractors and where scabbing starts and solidarity ends. The experience of life under capitalism can reveal both the potential divisions that destroy struggles and the commonalities that can overcome them. These next two pieces can help us understand and try to go beyond the barriers class throws at us. 

Abraham looked down the row at everyone else sorting mail. Their heads were bowed, occasionally rubbing their eyes they worked slowly but steadily- the only way you can when you work fourteen hours every day. He reached over to the letter that was left on his desk for him by a Canada Post Supervisor, he was in late because his daughter was up all night with a cough. The letterhead was from Reynolds Diaz, the private contractor that hired him on behalf of Canada Post.

He read:

August 3rd 2010

Dear Abraham,
Due to recent business developments you will now be compensated 24 cents per point of call per route, the previous rate of 26 cents will no longer apply. This pay reduction will be implemented retroactively last Tuesday and your pay stub will reflect this. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to call.
Regards,
Reynolds Diaz (more…)

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Solidarity Networks: Innovations, recomposition, and questions

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seasol mosaic (1)-editorial by SN Nappalos. The  development of Solidarity Networks, based largely to our knowledge on the example of Seattle Solidarity Network, has led to experiments and debate not only in the US, but internationally as well. At its simplest, a solidarity network is a grouping that uses direct action to sway fights of individuals and groups typically of workers and tenants. Different from traditional union organizing, Seattle Solidarity Network (also known as Seasol) began by bringing together a milieu willing to mobilize to support issues working class people have independent of where they work or live. This includes fighting in situations where a union is already there (as was the case with an SEIU shop), where it is a lone individual, or more recently amongst groups of tenants and workers. A thorough discussion of these experiences would be long indeed. Here we provide some of the main points of discussion and pieces looking at solidarity networks to keep those in circulation, and for us to learn as we carry forward.

(more…)

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