Welcome Visitor:

Anarchism

Book Review: Wages So Low You'll Freak

Wages So Low You'll Freak, by Mike Pudd'nhead

Book Review by Chris

Wages So Low You'll Freak

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 minimum wage 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.

 

Work for a bowl of rice a day

I did work for the dole at various places around Darwin a few years back: Vinnies, Larrakia Nation office (the Larrakia are the traditional owners of the Darwin area), and at the Aviation Heritage Centre. I had arranged to work at some other place I can't remember the name of (I think it was a housing co-op) but that fell through. I was angry about being made to do slave labour. I wanted to protest and resist it but I was on a good behaviour bond with a suspended jail sentence for political activity hanging over me at the time. I was luckier than other people, even though I certainly didn't feel lucky! I only ever had to do 1 day a week. Others were made to do more: 2 days, or maybe even 4! They sure seemed to come down harder on the young, and on those who complained about having to do it. At Vinnies I knew the person in charge from activist circles I'd worked in. Gave us breakfast with the long grassers (homeless people). This person was pretty cool and had us painting a pergola. I think she let us go home early and ticked off our names as if we'd worked the whole day.

Larrakia Nation was pretty slack. Once we mowed the grass in the bushtucker garden at the back of Royal Darwin Hospital. Another time wewere clearing infestations of the mimosa pigra weed along the banks of Rapid Creek near the university. I pretended I didn't know how to use the whippersnipper or brushcutter or whatever it was so I ended up just collecting the pieces the other guys cut down. As Larrakia rangers they were getting paid something like a proper wage, I believe. CDEP (Community Development Employment Program) pay plus top up.

I remember doing a bit of work in the garden at the Larrakia Nation office on a couple of days, and shovelling up dirt in the car park at the back another day. But a lot of the time we didn't have to work there as it was badly organised. We'd sit around talking for hours, waiting for someone in authority to tell us to do something. Those in charge never knew how many people who were supposed to be there for WftD would actually turn up. There might be 18 names on the list, but 6 or 7 would turn up. Or maybe 1 or none. A few times I showed up there to find I was the only one. Some guy told me, "You always turn up. But no-one else is here. So I'll just tick your name off and you can go." The Aviation Heritage Centre was a museum featuring a B-52 bomber from the USA, surrounded by many smaller aircraft and artifacts going back to WWII and earlier. I used to enjoy reading the info and learning history while dusting and polishing the planes and things and sweeping the floor.

There were also 2 Aboriginal women and a tall Sudanese man doing WftD there. The woman from WA said the WftD was demeaning. There was nothing much we could do about it though.

One day I wore an old t-shirt a friend had given me. He'd sprayed ANARCHY NOW on the back in red. I thought the writing had faded and was hardly visible any more. Unfortunately it was visible and the boss noticed it even though he couldn't make out what it said. He marched up to me and said, "You're not working inside with that on your shirt! What's it say? Wanker? Go outside and sweep the leaves out of the big carpark out the front!" (I thought, "There's only one wanker around here, mate, and it's not me!") But I didn't say that. I said, "I'm not going back outside unless I get some sunscreen to put on. (Because I'd got a bit sunburnt working out there before.) Boss man storms off in a huff.

One time he made me stay back late and help lift a heavy bbq into a dumpster. I hurt my back doing that. The following week I forked out $27 to see a doctor who thought I was faking back pain. (Good luck getting bulk billing in Darwin! They made you feel like a criminal just for asking.) Just so I didn't have to do slavery that week. I hated it. Had to do it another week instead.

That boss was a prick. He'd sit upstairs bludging in his air-conditioned office while the rest of us, paid staff and slaves alike, soldiered on in the heat and humidity. Once during a break he bragged to us how he'd bought a car, an old bomb, in Darwin for a few hundred bucks, and had it shipped over to East Timor where he sold it to a Timorese guy for $3000.

After I left I heard from my friend who still worked there in the shop and doing the guided tours, that they caught that boss with his hand in the till. The board sacked him but didn't press charges. I think I had to do WftD for 6 months, 1 day a week. Centrelink bureaucrats surprised me at one stage. They told me I didn't have to do any more of it. I thought they were mistaken but I didn't argue! Later they discovered their mistake and I had to go and work the remaining couple of days.

All in all it was a shitty experience being a slave. I'd always thought that if I were ever told to do Work for the Dole I'd refuse, find a way out of it somehow. But when it happened I couldn't get out of it. Not that I had the worst of it. Plenty of people copped it a lot worse than me. Aboriginal people particularly.

I heard of people in remote communities like Kalkaringi being made to do 30 hours a week work for the dole and on top of that getting punished with income management as well. If they refused this slavery they'd get no money. The government wouldn't dare try that on in a place like Sydney. They seem to use the NT as a sort of social laboratory and Aboriginal people as guinea pigs, to see how much abuse of people's human rights they can get away with.

In conclusion I can sum up my limited experience by saying that Work for the Dole is really about more than work. It's about power and control. It's rich bastard governments punishing people who are unemployed. It's class warfare, and race warfare. If people are doing that work they're not unemployed and should at least be paid award wages like anyone else. Anything less is bullshit.

 

Murder in Tottenham: Australia's first political assassination – book launch and discussion with the author

Sunday, February 21, 2016 -
2:00pm to 4:00pm
In 1916, as World War 1 raged and Australia debated conscription, tensions that had been boiling beneath the surface exploded with the shooting death of a police officer in western NSW. In less than three months two members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, were hanged in the most politicised and polarising example of capital punishment since Ned Kelly. Murder in Tottenham: Australia's first political assassination is a new book which examines these deaths and what drove bush workers to fly the IWW's flag of industrial revolution.
 
At this special free event, the author, Rowan Day will launch and discuss his book – 2pm, 21 February at Jura.
 

Some summer reading and thinking

Summer holidays called for a little light reading and thinking. I've recently finished my tenth read of Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Crazy you might think, but I find it endlessly fascinating for the global craft-work, deep thought, and fine word-smithing that forms the composition of this exceptional book - the best utopian classic of the C20th - maybe of all time. The book contrasts two societies, one on Urras 'Earth' and one on Anarres, its habitable moon.

Anarchism, Marxism, and Economics

Anarchism, Marxism, and Economics
(Based on a Red & Black Forum talk by Paul Rubner, 25 Oct, 2015.)

Although not a Marxist, I consider Marx’s writings as classics of revolutionary thought. Hence, coming to terms with Marx’s ideas – whether one agrees with them or not -- is important for anarchists, and left libertarians generally. Familiarising ourselves with Marx’s ideas through on-going study of the primary sources is, or should be, an essential part of our continuing self-education. In my view, this is just as important as studying, e.g., Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Bookchin, etc.

Pages