Guest blog contributions
Wages So Low You'll Freak, by Mike Pudd'nhead
Book Review by Chris
I gave this book to a friend as a late Christmas present. “Just read the first chapter,” I said, “then see if you can stop.” By 3am the next day he’d read the whole thing cover to cover in one marathon all-night session.
Wages So Low You’ll Freak deserves to be a small classic. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages. It covers radical politics and workplace organising in a way that’s honest, often extremely funny, and is totally relatable for young, early 21st century workers bouncing from one precarious, poorly paid job to the next.
The book is a sprawling, four-year-long, first-person narrative of Mike Wilklow’s attempts to organise a union at Jimmy John’s – a chain sandwich store with about 1,000 outlets throughout the US. At 22, fresh out of college and a recent signup to the Industrial Workers of the World, Wilklow joins his best friend in getting a job at Jimmy John’s and sets to work.
Unlike most conventional unions, the Industrial Workers of the World preaches an ethic of “solidarity unionism.” Rather than aiming exclusively for formal membership and legal bargaining rights, the IWW emphasises collective direct action on the shop floor to build workers’ confidence and win small, concrete improvements, followed by progressively larger actions over more ambitious goals.
Thus within a few months, despite representing only a miniscule fraction of the workforce, Wilklow and his co-workers are already taking action. When someone is arbitrarily fired for phoning in sick, dozens of IWW members call up the store to complain, jamming its phone lines and causing chaos while a handful of workers confront the boss together. When a new store manager takes over and begins sexually harassing staff, workers start a petition and get him fired. And when a supervisor in one shop punches out a union supporter for cutting a sandwich diagonally rather than straight across, every single person in the store stops work and gets that supervisor fired as well. Between 2007-2010, the battle on the shop floor rages back and forth until each of the ten Jimmy John’s stores in Minneapolis – where Wilklow is living and working – have a large number of union supporters in them ready to publicly declare their IWW membership and take on the company on a much larger scale.
There’s so much that I liked about Wages So Low You’ll Freak. For one thing, it’s just a great story. While the emphasis is on Wilklow’s attempts to organise a union, it also reads as something of an autobiography of four years of his life, bouncing around between demeaning minimum wage work, basement punk gigs, hook-ups, breakups, protests, parties, binge drinking, gambling and bike culture. The writing is really sharp and accessible, and the book is consistently entertaining and funny.
Wilklow is also pretty honest about himself and his own flaws. The book opens with a bizarre piece called “Why Happiness?” which he wrote as a 23-year-old, and each chapter includes a short entry from the diary he kept during the campaign. He also does a good job of depicting himself as an inexperienced, often immature early-twentysomething: he stuffs up repeatedly, says the wrong things, does the wrong things, can’t hold relationships together, is stubborn, talks too much, and is constantly hung over. But he has no trouble admitting all of this and is relentlessly self-deprecating.
Probably the most valuable thing about this book, though, is that it’s one of the only accounts of a union organising campaign that I know of which has been written not by an academic or a labour scholar or a paid union organiser, but by an actual participant who was there every day on the shopfloor. Union membership in Australia has plummeted from 56% of the workforce in the mid-1970s to less than 15% today, and the experience and cultural memory of rank-and-file workplace organisation has been almost totally lost. For that reason alone, Wages So Low You’ll Freak is incredibly useful and important: you can learn a lot about how to organise your own workplace just from reading it, not mention gain a lot of confidence about what it’s possible to achieve. In this light, the book’s setting in the unorganised, minimum wage service industry is pretty perfect, and the author solidly emphasises workplace organising that is under the control of workers themselves, without the interference of paid union organisers or bureaucrats.
For all these reasons I think Wages So Low You’ll Freak is a really enjoyable and valuable read. You can order it online from Microcosm Press and copies are also sold here at Jura Books in Sydney.
AnarchismAnarchist communismCapitalismLibertarian socialismMarxismSocialismSyndicalismWorkers control
Solidarity and direct action win the day!
The back story
Sydney Solidarity Network was contacted by CJ, a worker who was exploited and sexually harassed. She is a traveler on a working holiday visa who started working at a café in Leichhardt in early March. There were problems from the beginning. The boss would continually try to touch her and other women against their will. She was paid only $17 per hour, which is below the Restaurant Award wage ($22.24 on weekdays and $26.69 on weekends, for casuals).
The pay was cash-in-hand, and the boss would always pay late. No contracts were signed and the boss never asked for their tax file numbers. There were other workers who were fired on the spot, with no notice, for no reason. When CJ spoke up, she was taken off the shift roster, with no notice. She decided to quit. She asked the boss to pay her outstanding wages (at $17 per hour): $433.50. He refused, and one of the supervisors slapped the face of CJ’s friend who was there to support her. The cops were called but they didn’t help CJ, but instead told her to come back a few days later as the boss requested. When she came back the boss only paid her $200 and withheld the rest ‘for damages to property’ – a completely fictitious claim.
So CJ contacted SydSol and asked for help to get back her stolen wages. Together, CJ and SydSol demanded that the boss pay CJ the full $1,108.70 she was owed – which would bring her wages up to the award minimum for the hours she worked.
Exploitative, violent, disrespectful, and sexist behaviour by bosses, supervisors and cops is all too common – in the hospitality industry and elsewhere. But in this case, the workers decided to stand up and say “NO!”
Sydney Solidarity Network takes action
Over a two week period, SydSol organised 3 actions at the café. The actions were lively and energetic, with chanting, singing, banners, placards and leaflets. Between 20 and 40 SydSol supporters came to each action. During the actions they gave out almost 1,000 leaflets to passersby, telling CJ’s story. They had lots of conversations and caused much discussion on the busy Leichhardt street! Most passersby were very supportive. Each action lasted for around 2 hours, during which time almost no customers went to the café.
At first the boss refused to pay. He started off trying to ignore the actions, but soon found that didn’t work. He then became more antagonistic, publishing defamatory messages about the ex-worker, throwing buckets of water at the protestors and threatening to break someone’s arm! The boss called the police a number of times, but no arrests were made. He even hired musicians to try to drown out the chanting! But SydSol kept going!
After the third action the boss paid the full amount owed to CJ. Victory! As part of the settlement, SydSol participants agreed to remove the name of the café from their website and social media posts.
CJ was overjoyed and even decided to donate part of the money she was paid to Grandmothers Against Removals, and an activist legal fund, to spread the solidarity!
Another worker from the same café also quit during the period SydSol was taking action, because of similar issues with her employment. However that worker told SydSol that, to her surprise, the boss paid her what she was owed – almost certainly because of the actions!
This was a great campaign, which resulted in a real victory for workers. SydSol came together as a solidarity network and strengthened their organisation and their ability to take action. They showed the power of direct action – action taken by oppressed people ourselves, on our own terms, and in our own interests.
Sydney Solidarity Network continues – but they need you!
Sign up to their supporters email list, to get updates and action alerts: http://eepurl.com/UGQev and get your friends to sign up too!
Head along to their meeting/picnic at 3pm on Saturday 14th May in Camperdown Park, followed by celebratory drinks from 5pm at the Courthouse Hotel in Newtown. (In case of poor weather, they'll be in the Courthouse Hotel from 3pm.) They need more people to get involved in the SydSol organising group!
Share this story on social media and tell your friends about it!
SydSol also asks you to think about any issues in your own life, and the lives of your friends and families, to identify the problems in your workplace and your community. Problems which can be changed through direct action – like underpayments, bullying, landlords refusing to do repairs, or real estate agents evicting you without reason. And get in touch about taking action together to fix these problems!