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Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream by Janice Fine
Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream

jgeneric82, July 10, 2008

Book Review: "Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream"

By Janice Fine

Review by James Generic

Edited by Yoni Kroll and Chris Mullen



Today, unions in the US are in a weak state. More than 90% of all working people are not in unions. Does this mean that unions have become obsolete? No! The power of a worker in a union is much higher than someone without a union in terms of job security, wages, benefits, and the ability to solve grievances like harassment or discrimination. However, there have been many changes in American labor of late, such as anti-union laws, aggressive international anti-labor companies like Walmart, globalization where former union jobs are sent overseas, immigration laws aimed at keeping immigrant workers vulnerable, and the retailization of the US economy where many jobs have shifted from factories to retail and low-wage service jobs - like domestic workers, security guards, restaurant workers, agriculture, or day laborers. Most of the tactics of the labor movement have been slow to follow this shift. In addition, US unions tend to be on the conservative side (politically conservative like many building trades or craft unions, or just conservative in tactics and cautious in the case of industrial-based unions.) This huge void in the labor movement hasn't gone unfilled. A host of alternative labor organizing strategies and organizations have risen to fill this void, and one of the biggest trends of low-wage workers organizations is towards workers' centers.



In "Workers Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream", Janice Fine does a very thorough study of workers centers across the US, visiting 137 in a two year span. She lays out what a worker center is, an organization that offers at least four features to workers, which outside of unions that other groups do not: 1- Services, examples being English as a Second Language, legal aid, job placement, placement to need-based service orgs, cash checking, peer counseling, and getting back wages 2- Popular Education, which would be know-your-rights classes, basic economic and globalization classes, critical skills development 3- Organizing, such as collective action for betterment of constituents, engaging in campaigns around issues, getting better conditions for their membership or constituents, bringing in alliances of groups to help, leadership development and 4) Advocacy, which is getting the message out and bringing light to low-wage communities.

The majority of workers' centers are immigrant worker based, with many Latino and Asian centered groups and some African-American majority workers' centers, making race one of the key factors that these groups organize around. Often, the staff and volunteers of the workers centers come from the communities the centers work in, as well as the main point being to develop leadership within those communities. One of their big advantages over traditional unions is that workers centers are bottom up organizations based around local conditions, as opposed to numbers-based groups who target large bodies of people to organize instead of the "hot-shop" places. . In many ways, workers' centers are much like "pre-unions", doing the collective organizing that unions can't or won't do at this time but may someday be able to. The way that workers' centers think of members is also different than unions, in that in unions you are a member if you simply pay dues, but in the workers' centers it is more something you must earn and put in time for. Fine points out, however, that they could do better with fund-raising by establishing more firm membership. A general weakness of progressive organizations on the left - except unions - is the drift towards reliance on foundation money.

There are many examples of workers' centers across the United States. The Chicago Interfaith Workers Rights Center organizes heavily around churches. The Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFÉ) works with day laborers, recruiting heavily in immigrant soccer leagues. Restaurant Opportunities Center - New York (ROC NY) organizes around the food industry, trying to make many connections from farm to table as well as fighting for the huge but often not organized restaurant industry. Koreatown Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA) fights for Korean and Latino workers across the immigrant-heavy Koreatown in Los Angeles. Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) goes after mostly meatpackers, even getting a very conservative governor to give in to their demands and post workers bill of rights in every workplace. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance more or less functions as a union without the legal recognition. The Tenants and Workers Support Committee (TWSC) organizes all sorts of workers in Northern Virginia, but especially taxi drivers and domestic workers. Domestic Workers United in New York City unites a heavily fragmented workforce spread from house to house made up mainly of Caribbean immigrant women. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers fights for tomato pickers across Florida and have won big gains from fast food giants like McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell. CASA Maryland works mainly with day laborers. The Vermont Workers' Center provides a place for alliance amongst organizations and individuals. The Miami Workers Center works internationally with Columbian labor groups. Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights places a human rights framework around workers rights. The New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice builds worker power and racial justice in the post-Katrina environment. These are the ones that stand out in Fine's book, though many more have arisen since it was published in 2006.


The worker center model put forth by Fine has many strengths and weaknesses. In general, they are good grassroots organizations that value building up their members and placing action and results above all else. They serve as a way for low-income workers to be able to organize for a better place in society when there is no help coming from outsiders. They also address the immediate needs that have to be filled and combine that with pushing for collective action and power from the bottom-up, thus the service, popular education, organizing and advocacy aspects of workers centers. Often, the staff and volunteers of the workers' centers come from the communities the centers work in, which is important from a leadership perspective.

One of the main weaknesses is that worker centers tend to not have a firm membership base. Their direct membership is often small in comparison to unions, though that is often because they have many informal members through the networks that they build and the communities they serve. Because of that, their funds tend to be low and they tend to have to rely economically on grants because they generally haven't, or don't want to, built ways of raising money due to the fact that many of the communities they organize with are poor. Workers' centers could also do better as far as networking goes, as there are only two major national workers' center networks right now: the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) with 30 workers' centers; and Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) which connects 14 workers' center through strong religious ties. In general, their relationship with mainstream labor like the AFL-CIO has been somewhat rocky because unions often regard the centers as not being disciplined enough and not strategic and the centers see the unions as being too rigid tactically and top-down. However, labor has been moving to endorse workers' centers as a legitimate part of the labor movement. An example of this is the NDLON partnering with the AFL-CIO in 2006.

When I went to the Jobs With Justice (JWJ) 2008 national conference in Providence, Rhode Island, Terence Courtney of Atlanta JWJ remarked that in the last three years, JWJ and the labor movement in general seemed to have gotten more radical in embracing alternative forms of organizing with people directly effected by today's poor economy. Unions and groups like workers' centers have reached a more equal footing in the last three years, according to Courtney. I agreed with him, as low-wage worker organizations seemed to have a key role amongst the workshops and speakers that day, as opposed to mostly unions and their direct allies as it was back in 2005. It appears that JWJ has taken a major step forward in recognizing that because of the bad position American unions currently find themselves in, there's a big void that can and should be filled by workers' groups. That is especially true here in Philadelphia, where there is a big need for a group that would combine organizing with service and advocacy. A workers' center would fill that need perfectly.
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Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today! by Chris Carlsson
Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today!

jgeneric82, June 6, 2008

Book Review: "Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today"
by Chris Carlsson
Review by James Generic
"Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today!" explores the subcultures of subtle and active resistance to the dominate US consumer culture. Author Chris Carlsson argues that today, the American working class is fragmented and not able to organize through traditional union politics, since people work in jobs where they are moved around a lot or are more individualized in smaller units, like retail jobs or smaller shops or service jobs, with many different locations, as opposed to the factory setting of the 20th century. He says that active resistance focuses on creating a "nowtopia" approach rather than a far off future utopia. He touches on a variety of people in the US engaged in building this new world today, instead of confronting the old existing capitalist world order. Examples he gives include the DIY ethic, urban gardeners, bicyclist, hackers and internet freaks, the Burning Man, left-wing scientists, and free fuel activists.

Urban gardeners reclaim otherwise decaying urban cities, where drugs and crime plague neighborhoods, and try to get food from the land. The gardens take back private property, long abandoned by slum lords, and turn it into public land or a commons for the neighbors and by the neighbors, growing and sharing food. More often than not, women lead in rebuilding a sense of community by everyone with an interest in the gardens putting caring for them. Green Philadelphia, a network promoting urban gardens in Philadelphia areas taken over by drugs, empowered residents to be in charge of their neighborhoods. In the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani saw t he NYC vacant lot gardeners as a threat to private enterprise, even calling them communists, and basically declared war on the gardeners, forcing them to engage in active fights to preserve gardens and to prevent the land on which they sat from being sold to development schemes.

Carlsson also explores bike culture, like the Critical Mass protests that occur in cities throughout the world typically taking place the last Friday of the month. Bicyclists show that there is a viable, healthy, environmentally friendly and affordable alternative to car culture. Particularly in cities walking, biking or taking public transit provide valuable alternates to cars, lessening air, noise soil and water pollution. He interviews people who've opened up bike repair spaces to anyone who wants learn. In San Francisco, he focuses on programs that teach bike repair to children in low income neighborhoods. He also interviews people who rebel against mainstream bike culture, with its glossy magazines and spandex. The bike messenger culture, a highly individualistic, very punk subculture, has organized into messenger unions, but one in San Francisco fizzled out because the sponsoring union eventually pulled out and suffered backlash from the courier companies.

Carlsson looks into other revolts against mainstream consumer culture, like the veggie-fuel movement, telling the story of one group of people, who drove across the country, procuring used oil at fast food restaurants along the way in order to fuel their journey.They gave talks on their trip, telling others about biodiesel and about how to convert a car to run on veggie-oil. This group reduced their reliance on the oil economy and met their fuel needs by re-using oil that was otherwise destined for the dump. Their project was based on DIY ethics, on environmentally friendly motives, and on a reuse ethic, which in the current days where gas prices are through the roof might seem like a good alternative and a cheap way of fueling vehicles. (Though I worry about Carlsson promoting biodiesel in this day and age, since it will probably end up like ethanol and drive up corn prices, if it became widely popular.) Biodiesel is not sustainable on a mass scale. So consumers need to consider reducing their use of fuels though that's not always possible in places that are built around the automobile.

He looks at using open source software against corporate giants like microsoft. And he discusses the Burning Man festival. Although described by its organizers as an experiment in community, radical self-expression, and self-reliance, and promoting an idea of attenders who are all participants with its "no spectators" concept, not allowing monetary exchange so that attendees allegedly learn to think outside of the capitalist structure and re-evaluate "value" by bartering skills and things, Carlsson acknowledges that the festival has become another for-profit enterprise.

Throughout the book, Carlsson asks various people what they think their class background is. They usually respond that they aren't sure but thought they were some kind of middle class. He takes that to mean that the US working class is not something around which to organize. I think he might be forgetting that the US education system does not explicitly teach people about class. Even in the UK, where people often say they are working class even when they are not, interestingly similar to and yet different from the US where everyone thinks they're middle class from sanitation workers to US Senators. He berates unions over and over because they look at class from an outdated point of view. I agree: unions don't organize people anymore (I think that is the fault of US unions not of unionism). Though unions and the labor movement have been slow to adapt to the changing economy, I don't think that throws out a worker-driven movement.

A part I did like about this book is that it explained the concept of "Multitudes", developed and used by people like Negri, in language that was more on my level, so I finally figured out what it means (there are multiple classes of people instead of one working class).

All in all, the book is an interesting read, though it is a bit choppy and maybe the author jumps to conclusions too quickly. Still, it's cool to see what other people are doing to organize and agitate or self-organize as far as interests outside of my own. I've never been someone who's thought that you can only do one thing ("either, or"), and all else is damned. For any movement to thrive, there has to be a whole lot of stuff doing all kinds to resist and reject to the dominant cultures, as well as organizing within it and for a better future beyond it.

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Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States by Jules Boykoff
Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States

jgeneric82, May 15, 2008

Book Review-

Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States
By Jules Boykoff
Review by James Generic
Edited by Alice Johnston



The history of the United States is filled with stories of government repression of dissenters. While we know about the violent means of suppressing dissent, the more subtle means are harder to get a grasp on. In "Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States", author Jules Boykoff lays out theory on how dissent is suppressed and backs it up with historical and current examples, mostly from 20th century United States. In many places in the world—and even here in the US—the crushing of dissent by the state is the pure violence we imagine, but overall, in "rich" countries like the US, the suppression of dissent requires a lot more cooperation from the larger population, the media, and such. There are no tanks rolling through neighborhoods enforcing subjugation in most places in the US, but the near universal media and an omni-present police force, coupled with all sorts of extra legal rules for dissidents that are not enforced for others, does the job.

How does it work? Boykoff describes the methods and gives examples. He starts with the obvious one: Direct Violence, most often used against people of color in groups like the Black Panthers, AIM, the Young Lords, and others. This involves direct assassinations and attacks, like the killing of Fred Hampton in Chicago by the Chicago police or the attack by FBI agents at Pine Ridge that Leonard Peltier was framed for. The next method he examines is Public Hearings and Prosecutions, like those used against dissidents in the 1950s to frame any radicals as "Communists". These hearings mainly targeted labor activists who had just initiated a huge strike involving 2 million people in 1946 and Hollywood intellectuals and workers involved in the film industry. Senator Joseph McCarthy led a crusade against anyone who dared speak out against the Cold War or capitalism, framing the hearings so that only friendly witnesses were allowed to speak and dissident witnesses were routinely cut off. This was a way to whip up support for the Cold War and squelch the rising labor movement by blaming it on the tiny Communist Party USA. Part of the same routine is to Deny Employment, or blacklist dissidents, as occurred when Angela Davis was fired from UCLA in 1970 in response to the demand of Governor Ronald Reagan. Arresting dissidents on trumped up or rarely enforced charges also saps the energy of activists. They are put on the defensive in the courtroom where resolution can take years. The mass arrests of global justice demonstrators outside of the World Bank meetings in September 2002 tied hundreds of people to the courts for years. This intimidates people from expressing their opinion and puts a black mark on their criminal record.

Surveillance and Break-ins rank highly in the bag of dirty tricks to suppress dissent, especially in the FBI-run COINTELPRO program which operated until the mid 1970s to smash the "New Left". Martin Luther King and the Southern Poverty Leadership Conference were targeted as Communist-groups for neutralization to prevent the rise of "a black messiah". From there, they turned on any Communists (active or not members) in close company with King, taped affairs that King was having, and sent threatening letters demanding that King commit suicide. The FBI broke into Civil Rights organization offices many times for the purpose of planting warrentless wiretaps. In general, Civil Rights leaders always knew that the FBI, with its "red" obsessed director in Edgar Hoover, was watching them closely and would pounce at any embarrassment.

Actually infiltrating groups with Agent Provocateurs and trying to steer their direction, placing informants in groups, and trying to make people think that leaders of groups are actually FBI agents, a process known as "Badjacketing", stand out as more direct ways that the FBI used and uses to suppress dissent. Douglas Durham infiltrated the American Indian Movement (AIM), and steered it towards aggressive violence, opening fighting with other left-wing groups. Within two years, Durham's actions had fragmented AIM as a group. In the case of Anna Mae Aquash, Boycoff shows, the loss of trust by her AIM group because of FBI badjacketing directly led to her suicide. Even further, "Black Propaganda", or false hostile mail sent by the FBI in the name of one group to another with the intent to raise conflict between the two groups, led the Black Panther Party and the United Slaves (a black nationalist cultural organization) to actually start attacking each other, leading to the deaths of several members in both groups. The FBI also mailed a fake cartoon to a mostly Black political group in DC supposedly from a mostly white group, telling them to "suck my banana, you monkeys."

The final piece of suppression of dissent is the way the media, closely tied with corporations and the state, marginalizes and minimizes dissident movements. Most recently, protesters in 1999 against the World Trade Organization and subsequent anti-corporate globalization found that their views became news a way that didn't focus on the issues (as Boykoff shows in a study of major newspapers and television news). Instead, stories reported that organizers only got a few hundred people (even in cases where the number was much higher, that freaks and weirdos showed up to protests, that the message wasn't clear, and that protesters sought uninformed violence and often didn't know anything about the issues (as portrayed by the media, anyway.)) Boykoff moves into examples of suppression of dissent in recent years, such as the "Green Scare" in which anti-terrorism laws are used against militant environmental dissidents, even to the point of having an FBI infiltrator ("Anna") lead a group to almost bombing a cell phone tower and then giving one of the participants, Eric McDavid, a draconian prison sentence of 20 years for a crime that never happened. Anyone interested in being informed instead of paranoid should pick up this book, because this could happen to anyone who speaks out against the state and capitalism.
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