[Marxism] The Radical Guidebook Embraced by Google Workers and Uber Drivers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 10 09:37:34 MDT 2019


(In the Business section, no less.)

NY Times, Oct. 10, 2019
The Radical Guidebook Embraced by Google Workers and Uber Drivers
By Noam Scheiber

Just before 20,000 Google employees left their desks last fall to 
protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment, a debate broke out 
among the hundreds of workers involved in formulating a list of demands.

Some workers argued that they could win fairer pay policies and a full 
accounting of harassment claims by filing lawsuits or seeking to unionize.

But the argument that gained the upper hand, especially as the debate 
escalated in the weeks after the walkout, held that those approaches 
would be futile, according to two people involved. Those who felt this 
way contended that only a less formal, worker-led organization could 
succeed, by waging mass resistance or implicitly threatening to do so.

This view, based on century-old ideas, did not emerge in a vacuum. It 
can be traced in part to a book called “Labor Law for the Rank and 
Filer,” which many Googlers had read and discussed.

Its authors are a longtime labor historian, Staughton Lynd, and an 
organizer, Daniel Gross. They identify with a strain of unionism 
popularized in the early 1900s by the Industrial Workers of the World, a 
radical labor group known as the Wobblies that defined itself in 
opposition to mainstream trade unions.

The book has been “incredibly helpful in thinking through options for 
action, ways of building collective power, and giving workers who often 
aren’t familiar with labor law some working knowledge that can guide 
decision making,” said Meredith Whittaker, a leader of the walkout who 
left Google in July after more than a dozen years at the company.

Staughton Lynd, a historian long active in labor and civil-rights 
causes, wrote the first edition of “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer” in 
1978. He turns 90 next month.CreditDustin Franz for The New York Times
And Googlers aren’t the only ones who have drawn inspiration from the 
book. Workers at the crowdfunding company Kickstarter, the site of a 
recent union campaign, have studied it. Organizers with one of the 
largest Uber driver groups say the ideas have influenced them as well.

Ares Geovanos, a longtime volunteer for the Tech Workers Coalition, 
which seeks to organize workers across the industry, said the book’s key 
contention — that a dedicated group of employees can accomplish more 
through actions like strikes than by formal efforts to certify a union — 
had gained traction partly because it reflects reality: Most tech 
workers have traditionally been reluctant to organize.

“A lot of the struggles will necessarily be with a strong minority due 
to the narratives around working in the industry and ideological baggage 
of the work force,” Mr. Geovanos said by email. He said he first 
stumbled across “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer” while searching 
online for a do-it-yourself guide to organizing. His group later led 
training sessions based on the book that Google workers attended.

Mr. Lynd and Mr. Gross lay out a practical guide for staging a kind of 
workplace revolution that upends the balance of power between management 
and labor.

They explain, for example, when striking workers enjoy strong legal 
protections (in taking aim at unfair labor practices like retaliation) 
and when they are more exposed (in strikes focused strictly on economic 
demands). They discuss the circumstances under which workers can take 
their concerns to the media, such as a news conference in which coffee 
shop employees disclosed evidence of rat and insect infestations.

But more broadly, the book serves as a polemic contrasting mainstream 
“business unions” with what the Wobblies refer to as “solidarity unions” 
— that is, worker-led groups that are not typically certified as 
exclusive bargaining agents under federal law and therefore don’t need 
to win majority support to exist.

The business union “is controlled from the top down by officers and 
staff (usually white males) who are not regularly employed at the 
workplace,” Mr. Lynd and Mr. Gross write. They complain that a business 
union is preoccupied with achieving a bargaining agreement that requires 
workers to give up the right to strike and any say in the company’s 
major decisions.

When there is trouble at the workplace, they write, “the union member 
calls a steward or business agent and hopes that some bureaucratic 
process disconnected from the rank and file will right the wrong.”

In a solidarity union, by contrast, the workers “decide together on a 
course of direct action to right the wrong, which the workers will 
lead.” Solidarity unions may seek written agreements with management, 
but they are loath to make them overly comprehensive, at the risk of 
letting management get too comfortable.

Mr. Lynd, who will turn 90 in November, is something of a Forrest Gump 
figure in progressive politics. He taught history at Spelman College in 
Atlanta in the early 1960s and served as director of the Freedom Schools 
program in Mississippi, which brought activists from around the country 
to help teach and organize African-American students.

He joined the Yale faculty in 1964 but found himself without tenure 
prospects after making a trip to Hanoi with the antiwar activist Tom 
Hayden during the Vietnam War.

He and his wife, Alice, moved to Chicago, but he struggled to land 
another faculty position. “I was kicked out of academia,” Mr. Lynd said. 
They took jobs with the organizer Saul Alinsky, and Mr. Lynd later 
attended law school there. In the mid-1970s they moved to the 
Youngstown, Ohio, area, where Mr. Lynd represented workers and later 
prisoners, and have lived there ever since. Mr. Lynd’s first edition of 
“Labor Law for the Rank and Filer” was published in 1978.

In the early 2000s, he met Mr. Gross, nearly 50 years his junior, during 
a trip to Brooklyn for a conference. They stayed in touch after Mr. 
Gross went to work at Starbucks, where he was fired in 2006 while 
helping to lead a solidarity union that he co-founded, the IWW Starbucks 
Workers Union.

“I was an all-star barista, and all of a sudden they thought I forgot 
how to make a cup of coffee,” Mr. Gross said. Starbucks declined to 
comment for this article, but said at the time that Mr. Gross had been 
fired for an inappropriate remark to a manager. Mr. Gross said the 
remark was a simple plea not to fire a colleague.

Mr. Gross, who later graduated from Fordham Law School, prefers 
unpretentious professional titles. More than once in our conversation he 
used “fellow worker” as an honorific, as someone might use “doctor” or 
“professor.” “Fellow Worker Little was another martyr in the copper 
industry,” he said, alluding to Frank Little, a revered organizer in the 
Wobblies’ heyday.

Since law school, Mr. Gross has led Brandworkers, a group that organizes 
employees in the specialty food-making business. On a Saturday in 
August, he joined workers in leafleting outside a Manhattan cafe over 
its patronage of a bakery that the group accuses of hurting workers by 
mishandling an immigration audit.

Mr. Gross collaborated on a revised edition of “Labor Law for the Rank 
and Filer” with Mr. Lynd in 2008, with an update in 2011. About three 
years ago, Mr. Geovanos of the Tech Workers Coalition came across the 
book, and the group incorporated it into a seminar that became the basis 
of a standard training session.

Mr. Geovanos said tech workers were quick to absorb the book’s lessons. 
“We do breakout exercises and scenarios based on the material so I get 
to see people apply the learnings immediately,” he said by email.

While applauding the grass-roots organizing that the book has helped 
inspire, union leaders have cautioned that solidarity unions can be 
exhausting for workers to sustain and that they leave workers vulnerable 
to company retaliation. “You don’t have the law behind you to protect 
you like you would if you have recognized agents like a union,” Liz 
Shuler, the secretary-treasurer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in an interview.

But many Google activists have come to share Mr. Lynd’s and Mr. Gross’s 
ambivalence about traditional unions. “They can work for some workers, 
but we need to be thinking about the organizational form we’re adopting 
and how to build power for the long run,” Ms. Whittaker said.

Ivan Pardo, a leader of Rideshare Drivers United, a group representing 
more than 5,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in Southern California, said the 
views of Mr. Gross, with whom he speaks regularly, “definitely pervaded 
the way I think.”

Mr. Pardo’s group has criticized efforts by mainstream unions to broker 
a deal with Uber and Lyft that would allow drivers to organize but could 
require them to give up other rights. He said Mr. Gross had helped give 
him confidence that drivers could have influence by building their own 
organization and striking and protesting rather than making such 
concessions.

Mr. Gross sees a key advantage of the solidarity model in some of the 
recent successes by nonunionized workers. The need to win a majority of 
workers, typically in a secret ballot election, makes formally certified 
unions relatively easy to resist, he said. If a company hangs on through 
the election, union organizers often pack up and leave.

But solidarity unions can challenge employers for years without an 
election. “What Uber and Lyft workers are doing, what tech workers are 
doing, game workers,” he said, “it’s very resilient and robust and very 
difficult to stamp out. There’s no institution that’s going to call it 
quits one day.”

Follow Noam Scheiber on Twitter: @noamscheiber.



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