Thursday, 26 May 2016

Bernie Backs a Wobblie Whopper: The Burgerville Workers Union

Burgerville workers marching on April 26. (WNV / Shane Burley), from Waging Non Violence.

An interesting thing has happened across the pond, an American Presidential candidate has supported an organising campaign by the Industrial Workers of the World. Something that hasn't happened since the 1910's and the days of Eugene Debs when the Socialist Party split from the American section of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The Burgerville Workers Union:
Portland, OR – In a historic move, workers at Portland-area fast food chain Burgerville announced at a rally in the Clinton Street Theater on April 26th that they were forming a union, the Burgerville Workers Union, in affiliation with the Portland branch of the IWW. They marched from the theater to the Burgerville location at Southeast 26th and Clinton to present their demands:
  • an immediate $5 an hour raise
  • affordable, quality healthcare
  • a safe and healthy workplace
  • fair and consistent scheduling with ample notice
  • a supportive, sustainable workplace including paid maternity/paternity leave
  • free childcare and transportation stipends
A typical Burgerville worker makes only $9.60 an hour, and is typically scheduled just 26 hours a week, just under the 30 hours a week which would make them eligible to receive benefits. That equals out to about $990 a month before taxes. To put that into perspective, the average apartment rent in Portland is $1,275 a month for a one bedroom apartment, and most apartment complexes require prospective tenants income to exceed 3 times the amount of the rent.
“Most people can’t even afford to have an apartment. In Portland, everyone knows that the cost of living is insane. It basically took me a second job to be able to have a place of my own. I couldn’t afford it with what Burgerville pays me,” said Greg, Burgerville worker and union member.
Other workers cited problems with management’s uncaring attitude toward their employees: “I need to be able to take a sick day without fear of retaliation,” stated Robert, a Burgerville worker at the Powell location.
The workers forming the Burgerville Workers Union represent a cross-section of the community – young people, seniors, mothers, fathers, students, and grandparents. They put passion into their work, and want to improve their workplaces for themselves, their co-workers, and the community.
“We’re trying to make Burgerville a better place – I just want to be able to do my job and be paid a living wage. This is going to make Burgerville better, by having happy employees that work hard and are proud of their jobs” said Debbie, Burgerville Worker Union member.
The Burgerville Workers Union is supported by the Portland IWW and endorsed by a coalition of local unions and community groups, including ILWU Local 5, IATSE Local 28, SEIU Local 49, Portland Association of Teachers, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, Portland Solidarity Network (PDXSol), Portland Jobs with Justice, Blue Heron Collective (Reed College), Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, Alberta Cooperative Grocery Collective Management, Hella 503 Collective, Marilyn Buck Abolitionist Collective and People’s Food Co-op.
Here's some more information about the Union.

And here's a short video put out by some of the Union members about work conditions and the need for the campaign.

As previously stated this campaign has been singled out by one of the candidates in this seemingly never ending race to the Oval Office.

The candidate is of course Bernie Sanders, here's what the next Commander in Chief (maybe, possibly, well there's a chance at least) has to say on the matter:

FRANKFORT, Ky. – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Saturday released the following statement praising the union organizing efforts of the workers at Burgerville, a restaurant chain in Oregon and southern Washington.

“I applaud the workers of Burgerville in Oregon for forming a union. What these workers are calling for is not radical. In the richest country in the history of the world, no one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty. $9.60 an hour is a starvation wage. The workers at Burgerville deserve a living wage of $15 an hour. They have a right to flexible work schedules, affordable health care, and healthier working conditions. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

“Over the last thirty years, we’ve seen unprecedented growth in income inequality in this country. We have a rigged economy held in place by a corrupt system of campaign finance. That’s why workers, like those at Burgerville, must be able to form a union and collectively bargain for higher wages and stronger benefits.
“The Burgerville Workers Union is a perfect example of the type of political revolution that we need: people coming together and demanding real change to improve the lives of working people. As I’ve said on this campaign, this election is not about me, it’s about people from all walks of life coming together. And I am confident that when this happens, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”

In addition the Young Turks who've become an unofficial arm of the Sanders Campaign also talked to the Burgerville Workers and gave them a kinda endorsement.

I think the Sanders statement and the Young Turks video are interesting as they seem to have not quite understood what the Burgerville Workers were talking about in the way they were meant. They certainly don't know anything of the IWW. Both the statement and the video talk about campaign finance and political corruption. Whereas in Union video above and the brief interview segment the Workers were talking about the economic relationships of workers and the company within a community. The two don't really gel.

To elaborate, the Burgerville Workers aren't actually fighting for a new law increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour. They're just pushing for a wage increase of $15 per hour, this struggle is between the workers of Burgerville and the owners of Burgerville, politicians corrupt or otherwise don't really factor into this dispute. But what about the bigger picture? Well the Union is saying something very different on that as well.

In many ways it’s not the fault of Burgerville or its owners. They operate within a low wage economy that accepts paying workers near minimum wage as the norm to squeeze everyone for maximum profit. This is an economy where over the last 40 years productivity has increased over 70% while wages have increased by under 10%, and where following the Great Recession the strongest job growth has been low wage work. The reason for this is clear: This is capitalism, a structure that prioritizes growth and profit over human need and development. We, Burgerville workers, are not merely facing Burgerville, we’re facing a whole structure that’s bent on pushing us to the edge of what we can bare.
We understand this larger structure. But we also realize that it is produced by people, no matter how large or unchangeable it seems. Burgerville produces it by choosing to go along with the rest of their peers and paying us meager wages; even workers produce it ourselves when we accept the boss’ authority over our work and accept wages far lower than the value of what we produce. We all produce this structure and we all face a choice: Do we allow it to continue or do we fight to end it?
They talk about minimum wage but aside from a comment about it currently being the lowest accepted point the context is completely different to what Bernie Sanders and Cenk Uygur use. The Union is talking about the role of wage labour in capitalism, the lower the wage paid the greater the economic exploitation. And the solution put forward by the Union isn't campaign financing reforms or political leadership its workers coming together the fight the system as a whole.

More and more workers are choosing to fight. We are inspired by garment workers in Cambodia, factory workers in China, and our fellow fast food workers across the United States. Workers across the world are standing up and demanding better lives and winning respect.
I think the workers in the Young Turks video were doing a pretty good job of stirring their interview in this direction. Its a shame that it was cut short so the trio in the studio could plug their own  pressure group the Wolf PAC. What's happened here is that American Liberals have seen an intiative by American workers and read their own narrative into it. And by offering their support they've ended up trying to usurp the original meaning of the campaign. I'm sure its unintentional but its still a problem. I believe the Young Turks videos main effect is to show the gulf between Liberal reformers and Revolutionary Workers.

And of course I should stress that a wage increase is only one of the demands of the Burgerville Unions current campaign.
  • affordable, quality healthcare
  • a safe and healthy workplace
  • fair and consistent scheduling with ample notice
  • a supportive, sustainable workplace including paid maternity/paternity leave
  • free childcare and transportation stipends
I think its important to keep these other issues in mind here and in all similar cases as I've noticed a tendency for the monetary issues to dominate the discussions around strikes and labour campaigns. Usually feeding into a warped narrative about greedy workers getting ideas above their station. I think that narrative is bunk, though rather telling about the position of the working class in this society.

So here's my full and unconditional statement of support for the workers at Burgerville. I make this statement in the full knowledge of what the Burgerville Union is, and what it is aiming to achieve. IF you feel the same way then head over to their support page.

Friday, 13 May 2016

SPEW and Me

In Britain for some reason the most common and longstanding strain of leftism is Trotskyism. This has always been a bit of a mystery to me because even the Trotskyists loathe Trotskyists. Off the top of my head theirs the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Socialist Party in England and Wales (SP/SPEW) the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) Solidarity (also in Scotland) the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), Workers Power(WP), the Workers Revolutionary Party(WRP) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CGPB) and I must be forgetting at least a dozen and have never heard of several more. Many have very bad reputations and reputations are all I know them by, with one exception.

I do actually have a bit of personal experience with one Trot group, and curiously enough it was the one that had a fairly decent reputation in some circles. That was SPEW often know as just the Socialist Party, but I'll keep referring to them as SPEW because I don't like them being associated with Socialism, and I hope I'll adequately explain why that is below. Here's a list of the times I encountered the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

A mini disclaimer, apart from the last incident this is all from memory and happened several years ago, so do bear in mind that I'm going to be a bit hazy on the details.

In 2011 I was at a UCU picket at the University of Hull, in addition to striking lecturers some local TUC council members, me and a mate we also had a few unaffiliated Socialists and the student section of the SP. It was a standard negotiation picket, a petition to sign support, banners saying UCU and “honk if you support hardworking lecturers” you know, not exactly building the barricades. The Student section turned up with a megaphone, but instead of manning the picket tried to get everyone to form some kind of rally chanting about Cairo and Wisconsin, and some third place I really don’t remember, Athens maybe?. When it didn't work they just left, as in walked off leaving the rest of us very confused. Now that was not a very good first impression, but I just wrote it off as a bunch of over enthusiastic students not really understanding the reality of these things.

A year later in Grimsby the SPEW as a party tried something similar at a Fireman’s Brigade Union protest, they were forcefully told to knock it off or be banned from any other FBU event. It was rather embarrassing; now they just take part in the protest but  afterwards try to encourage people to attend an additional meeting they set up nearby. I've never taken them up on the offer so don't how well attended this side meetings have been but if their election results are any indication the strategy hasn't worked very well.

And when TUSC was formed the group spent months fighting with the local Labour party over control of the Union branches, the fight was purely about officer elections and affiliations, and of course financial support for the local council elections, even though TUSC only put up one candidate a year at the time, though to be fair to them in recent years they've put up a few more.  The attempt failed and back fired pretty badly, since it meant that the few SPEW union branch officers they did have were isolated and had their reputations sunk because the ordinary members resented them wasting time trying to use them for political fights.

This is embarrassing stuff and it didn't endear me to them in anyway, but SPEW are a national organisation and so maybe I've just had some bad luck? Well no, I also have experience through a friend of a friend of an incident when the SPEW as a national organisation behaved in a very disruptive and opportunistic way.

For me the most egregious example of a SPEW highjacking was what happened to the National Shop Stewards Network. I wasn't directly involved in this but friends were so I learnt quite a bit about the group and its breakdown and the role of the SPEW. It was also a very public falling out so I was able to look up a few things and refresh my memory. This for me was the event that soured me on the party as a whole, I don't think I was every really in danger of joining them but it after this it meant I didn't have any time for them at all.

The NSSN was a network for shop stewards in various unions across the country, hence the name. More importantly it had succeeded in growing in some parts beyond a contact list into actual working groups and so had a physical presence. The SP had put a lot of effort into this network that had been founded by the RMT union in 2006 and for awhile had received quite a bit of credit from Trade Union types. However in 2011 it soon became clear that the SPEW were only interested in the NSSN because it was supposed to be just another front for the Party and as such all non SP members ended up resigning.

Effectively killing what had been a fairly active support network for the sake of party strategy. If you go to the NSSN website today its indistinguishable from a leftist blog site, all the news is about demo marches, "building the pressure" and solidarity (best wishes) with groups and people but no actual practical steps for any of them. The only times it does discuss strikes or workplace actions its by Unions on their own at best its a newsletter, about actions going on independently of itself. In contrast the old group was full of updates and news about workplace struggles, like for example the Yorkshire and Humberside bulletin from 2009.

I don’t bring up the NSSN because I have an attachment to it, I don't really. While it was doing some interesting things it remained firmly a creature of the Trade Union movement. Conservative, defensive and dominated by officers and staffers, even though it proclaimed that it's main goal was building the rank and file. I think on balance the old NSSN was better than what it became for whatever that's worth.
No I bring it up because in addition to my tangential connections to the NSSN it exposes the SPEW as just another opportunistic group concerned with its own influence. By the time SPEW had decided to exert controlling influence on the NSSN it had already agreed to join the anti cuts struggle. The problem and the reason for the split revolved around the question of how. The majority non SPEW officers agreed that the NSSN should be part of a wider anti cuts movement independent of any of the other organisations. 

The NSSN Conference on 22nd January will feature an important debate about the network's role in the anti-cuts movement, which is likely to be decisive in determining the organisation's future. The meeting of the majority of current NSSN Officers held on 5th January unanimously agreed that the NSSN should seek to build unity between the existing anti-cuts bodies and to oppose any attempt to further fragment the developing but still fragile anti-cuts movement. We urge all NSSN supporters and like minded trade unionists to attend our conference to help ensure that the NSSN plays a positive role in unifying the emerging anti-cuts movement and in building support for the sort of industrial action that will be crucial to beating back the coalition's attacks.

Emphasis mine.

However SPEW wanted the NSSN to join its own anti cuts organisation that was being setup at the time.
The purpose of this Conference is to put before shop stewards and workplace reps a proposal to set up a working class trade union based campaign that is able to intervene on a clear no-cuts programme in the forthcoming battles.
Emphasis mine.

Both sides of the dispute NSSN officers on one side(SPEW blamed one Dave Chapple a CWU shop steward in particular) and the SPEW Executive Committee (which to me is telling*) claimed the opposition was unrepresentative, and while I’m no stranger to a fight between two dishonest groups equally as terrible, after the dispute came to ahead it was followed by mass resignations which does suggest that the NSSN officers did have a majority. Though many of the 80 who left may have been motivated more by anti SPEW feelings than pro NSSN officers feelings.

On the 22nd of January meeting the SPEW members dominated and forced through their proposal. This meant that from 23rd of January the NSSN had to work to setup a project of the SPEW, understandably the non SPEW members didn’t feel like working for a political party they weren’t members of and so resigned. And that was all she wrote. This dispute tanked SPEW’s reputation, amongst the trade union constituency, the jewel in the crown for most Trotskyist groups. At least one General Secretary had written an open letter to dissuade them from this plan and the shop stewards informed the rest of the union apparatus. And of course all the other leftist groups wasted no time spreading the information. It’s also clear that the dispute was purely about control, the NSSN had already agreed to resist the public spending cuts in some form so this couldn’t have been motivated by principal, unless we count naked self interest. If the SPEW were genuine in building a powerful anti cuts movement and had no interest in controlling the NSSN they had several options, join an already existing anti-cuts group, or set up their own but keep it independent of the NSSN either option would have allowed them to work with the NSSN on its own terms.

I do feel sorry for the members who put years of effort into the organisation only to have another group wreck it for them. And for any workers who relied upon the NSSN in their workplace struggles because this politicking couldn't have helped. 

A textbook case of highjacking, in hindsight this wasn’t really surprising given that SPEW is the child of Militant. But there you are. I don't really have an overall point here, I just thought it'd be worth sharing my experiences with this group for reference purposes. Though I suppose it might be useful knowledge for anyone interested in joining such an organization. I mean when I first encountered the "Socialist Party" tm I didn't know about their Trotskyist leanings or their dodgy heritage. They talked a good British leftist game about nationalisation and the need for workers militancy etc, which was in tune with my politics at the time.
Fortunately I held off joining until I knew more about them and my education took me in a different direction.

*To elaborate the dispute was publicly between a group of NSSN officers and the SPEW executive committee as a whole and not just the party members who had joined the NSSN. Which confirmed the allegation that the SPEW members were carrying out party orders.

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