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Finding Workplace Power
T he recent AFL-CIO debates have generated much smoke and thunder. What’s lacking is a short- to medium-term strategy that gets at how workers and unions can tap the strength they find on the job. Unions and workers have always had the power to stop the wheels of industry. But with traditional “all-out” strikes on the decline in the United States, the labor movement has had to find new ways to exercise this power.
One of these places can be found in what the business press calls “the logistics revolution”—the expanding system of docks, railways, trucking barns, intermodal yards, warehouses, distribution centers, dispatch offices, and other work- places that keep massive amounts of goods flowing into retail outlets.
Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer and employer, pushed its way into market dominance in large part due to its mastering of this revolution, according to a paper by Tom Reifer, a researcher specializing in logistics. Making use of technologies that track goods all the way from the factory to the point of sale (including the world’s largest privately-owned satellite communications network), Wal-Mart has refined its “just-in-time” distribution much as manufacturers have refined lean or “just-in-time” production. Suppliers and competing retailers have been forced to adopt, in part or in whole, similar systems. But while these supply chains are becoming hyper-efficient, they are also increasingly exposed to potential disruption.
T here is power and leverage to be had in this sector,” observed Edna Bonachich, professor of sociology at UC Riverside, in comments about the rail and trucking industries ( Labor Notes , April 2004). “The corporations have created extended supply chains and depend on timely delivery. Inventory has been cut to the bone, so that any blockage in the system can cause them major problems.”
More and more goods are coming into this country—mostly from Pacific Rim countries like China. Textile imports from China alone, for instance, increased more than 63 percent in 2004, according to a U.S. Commerce Department report. This trade is flowing into more concentrated points.
By 2002, 80 percent of all Asian cargo (over 50 percent of total imports) was coming into the United States through container ships unloading in West Coast ports. The great bulk of this West Coast traffic is further concentrated in one giant port, Los Angeles/Long Beach. Traveling through congested ports and rail lines, this system has become ove-stretched and fragile, placing more potential power in the hands of workers.
Size Not The Issue
F or instance, a two-hour walk-out by 100 train dispatchers in Fort Worth, Texas on March 2, snarled traffic up and down the 32,000 miles of track operated by BNSF Railways, one of the nation’s largest rail carriers.
BNSF had tried to unilaterally implement changes in paid leave and comp time in its contract with the dispatchers’ union, the American Train Dispatchers Association. Instead of rolling over, workers at the Network Operations Center walked and BNSF trains stopped all over the country.
to company reports, close to 50 percent of rail traffic was stopped
in the Pacific Northwest—thousands of miles from the Texas-based
dispatch center. Similarly, commuter trains operated by the railroad
in Chicago, Seattle, and Tacoma, Washington were shut down, stranding
passengers throughout all three cities.
This kind of disruption is not limited to the rails, as Hawaiian members of the Inland Boatmen’s Union showed in 2004. Following a fight over pension, health care, and staffing levels in contract negotiations, fewer than 70 tugboat operators launched a 3-day strike that shut down virtually all shipping to the import-dependent islands. With many companies forced to send freight by air, management quickly folded and signed a four-year contract.
High diesel prices last spring pushed port truck drivers across the country into action. These mostly immigrant short-haul drivers typically either lease or own a single truck. Often called troqueros, as many of them are Latino, they have borderline poverty incomes after all costs are deducted.
Despite legal hurdles that have stifled union drives in the past, these drivers have been able to translate often informal and sporadic organization—held together by word-of-mouth, CB, and informal meetings—into actions that big shippers have to pay attention to.
In May 2004, California’s Los Angeles/Long Beach and Oakland ports, along with the Stockton, California rail/truck intermodal yard, were closed for short periods because of troqueros’ pickets. A second round of uncoordinated walk- outs that summer disrupted ports and intermodal yards along the East Coast and in the Midwest, including Miami, Charleston, New Orleans, Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Houston, and Detroit.
As diesel fuel prices creep back up to the $2.50 per gallon range, some are expecting more actions. Reports from Truckers Unite, a port driver advocacy group, tell of walkouts by 20-50 drivers at sites in the Los Angeles area in mid- April. Strikers at Road Transport reportedly won pay increases of 5-10 percent on April 12.
Much has been made about union size in the recent AFL-CIO debates. But the ease of workplace disruption in logistics—and possibly other unexplored points in the economy—amplifies the strength of smaller groups of workers. Activists need to be discussing not only what will make the labor movement larger, but also what is a workable strategy for using the strength already in hand.
Chris Kutalik is co-editor of Labor Notes .
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.