If I had to describe the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) today, I would say it’s a small group of dedicated, mostly white, educated activists playing union. This can best be illustrated by the IWW’s latest action to help Union barista Liberte Locke. Here’s the paragraph from the IWW regarding the details of the action:
NYC IWW union organizer and rape survivor Liberte Locke is in danger of being fired for refusing to put her safety at risk any longer for Starbucks. In retaliation for her organizing efforts, store manager Amady Liditi has forced Liberte to close every single shift for the last 4 months. After repeated sexual harassment while returning home after 2 AM, and tired of waiting on the slow process of legal charges, Liberte has been refusing to work past 11 PM for the past week (even though she is scheduled to work until 1:45 AM).
The first thing any serious labor activist should notice is that this is an action for one person. Apparently it’s dangerous to close at 2am in New York City. I don’t think anybody would have trouble believing this or even supporting it. But what’s the IWW’s position? To take one worker out of a dangerous situation and put another in it? When I asked about this on the Facebook page I was told, “There are other workers who want those hours,” by Liberte Locke. And, again, I have no doubt this is the case. But a union, any serious union at least, is about protecting all workers. If it’s dangerous for Liberte to close at 2am, it’s probably just as dangerous for those other workers. It doesn’t somehow make it right that other workers are willing to risk their lives to work this more dangerous shift.
This is what I mean about “playing union.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned in organized labor it’s that you never make issues personal. It’s never about the danger to one worker. If there is a safety issue it applies to all workers, and it should be addressed by all the workers collectively to management. That’s where we have power. What an effective solution to this problem looks like should be determined by the workers and presented to management. That’s how a real union operates.
Oddly enough, if you go to the action page on Facebook there are suggestions for texts to send to the manager. One is an old IWW slogan that sums it up well: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Yes, indeed. Let’s hope the IWW does more than play musical chairs with this dangerous situation. If it’s a danger to Liberte Locke, it’s a danger to all workers at that Starbucks.