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Lenin Was Wrong: Workplace Struggles Are Political

Marianne Garneau, publisher of Organizing.Work, joins the show to discuss her article Workplace Struggles Are Political.

Garneau's provides a necessary corrective over common views amongst "socialists" that work and politics are two separate spheres in which struggle takes place. Following the wrongheaded opinion of Lenin, who assessed workers as only capable of rising to a level of "trade union consciousness," these socialists, according to Garneau, "take a surprisingly apolitical view of what goes on in the workplace."

Read the article that informs the conversation:

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Laborwave Radio: Marianne Garneau now welcome back to labor wave radio. 

Marianne Garneau: Thanks for having me again. 

LR: I was really excited to read one of your most recent pieces on organizing work. Workplace struggles are political because I think it really like I've been getting increasingly angrier as I've become more and more aware of how little confidence and faith. It seems like a lot of like labor lefties have in the capacity of ordinary workers to both organize their own unions, but also act politically. And I don't know like how to express it properly, but it's just something I keep noticing and noticing. 

And I think this piece really just laid it down and made it crystal clear what's going on. So you immediately begin by illustrating how for many on the labor laughed or self-described socialist. They think of the economic arena and the political arena as separate spheres is very distinct. So could you just explain a little bit more about that separation and why it leads to a lot of problems when it comes to thinking about politics and labor organizing? 

Speaker 2 (3m 32s): Yeah, I mean, I think there are basically two trends that go hand in hand. One is thinking that, you know, unions are important. We should organize workers. Obviously the workplace matters. That's where we earn a wage. There's some sense that there's a power struggle there, workers need benefits, whatever. And so, okay. Yeah, we need unions. We need unions to push back against employers, but there's this really prevalent thought that the real political work or thinking or action or power struggle takes place outside of work. 

So the idea is that like we need workers in unions because workers need to be organized within the real political work is going to be done by intellectuals and luminaries. And most importantly, a political party and real political fights take place in this sort of official political sphere where we fight over elected positions and put forward competing visions of society and so on and so forth. So what's really weird about that is in the first place, the fact that it completely tracks the kind of what we might call the Borzois mentality, which prevails in our society, which is that work is one thing and politics is another right. 

Politics is something we do at election time in those contested spaces for, you know, public office, whatever work is not that important, right? In fact, contemporary society wants you to think of quality of work is not political at all. You're not supposed to think there's anything strange about the fact that all orders come from the top down and about the fact that if you are insubordinate to your employer, you will find yourself on the street. Like we're not supposed to spend much time thinking about that at all. 

We're not supposed to see Paula work is political. We're not supposed to spend too much time thinking about that as a power struggle as a location of like opposing class interest and so on and so forth. So there's this weird way in which leftists replicate that by thinking that, okay, yeah, we should, we should have better wages. We should organize for Christian to unions. And they even use the words, class struggle around that, but they really think that real real politics takes place somewhere else. The other thing that that goes hand in hand with which I tried to address both in this piece that I wrote is thinking that workers need outside leadership. 

And that thought occurs on a lot of different levels. So it occurs in the form of thinking that like unions are okay, but they're very limited. They can't come up with their own political vision. What happens there is not terribly forward or far thinking they need political parties instead, or it happens as you were alluding to in the form of thinking that, you know, workers are great. We love workers, right? Workers are there, the proletariat, we love the workers, but they can't think for themselves, they need leaders. 

They need a party. They need intellectuals to actually do the thinking for them, whatever, even manifests in terms of like how the organizing takes place, where you either think that you need outside staff to come in and completely run a campaign and do things and strategize and vision eyes or whatever on behalf of workers, or you think you can do that, that they could do that themselves. And there were very, very, very few people in the latter camp. Like it's like, you're saying, once you see it, you can't unsee it. But the lack of confidence in working people's ability to actually a run their own campaigns, be developed politically, see, be the people who are pushing back against capitalist power in our society. 

Like there is no confidence in that. And once you see that you cannot see, 

Speaker 0 (7m 7s): And you even point out that when people do say like, when there is a concession made from like this labor left, that workers are capable of any type of organizing, they always frame it as being a spontaneous struggle, that it can never be premeditated, that it can only be the result of accidents, I suppose. 

Speaker 2 (7m 26s): Absolutely. Like, that's the straw man. Right? And so my article takes on a couple of pieces. One is by this guy named Sam Kendon, who's in Canada. I think like basically a Trotskyist. I don't really pay attention to people's like, I don't, I honestly don't care. It's hard to tell, like, this is probably very obvious, but I genuinely don't care. I know he's worked for the, the KT auto workers back when it was called that he was a university professor and so on and so forth, but he's a socialist basically. Right? So he was writing about how it's foolish to think that you don't need leadership because workers are not spontaneously radical. 

And whenever somebody uses the word spontaneity, like reach for your wallet or your gun, whatever, whatever the appropriate expression is in this case, like who the fuck is arguing, that workers are spontaneously radical, that they spontaneously, I don't know, spout, leftist, Marxists ideals that they spontaneously rise up at work. And in fact, there's a weird debate that plays out between the Trotskyist or Leninist socialists who believe in leadership from above, and then like the contrarion ultra left communists who think, no, no, no, there's no leadership necessary because these things will happen spontaneously. 

And I basically think both of those positions are wrong. And I think that that's why the website organizing work confuses people because we basically believe that working people should, can and should absolutely lead their own struggles. But of course there's a process of development. That's going to take place in that. And a lot of what that development looks like is just going up against the boss collectively and then realizing what a power struggle that is shoring up your power and doing it again, stronger, better, et cetera. 

But at no point in that process, do I see some fundamental need for like, you know, the, the socialist visionary to parachute in and start? Like, I don't know. He, there's also just a weird understanding of like what, what even is political 

Speaker 0 (9m 26s): And why and why people are willing to take actions on the shop floor. Like there's a weird conviction that only if people have the proper ideas, if they have the proper political consciousness that then they will then act upon that consciousness. And I find that there is, I don't know where that started. It seems like maybe when in the one that kind of put that down first by saying workers only capable of forming trade union consciousness and nothing about that. Don't no. What do you think about this? There seems to be this like strange backward conviction that like ideas are prior to action or the ideas of the reason that people are willing to fight them. 

Speaker 2 (10m 4s): Absolutely. Absolutely. So I think that there's a sense in which that's kind of like the whole Jacobin project where you spread socialism to the masses. This is why people were also really confident that the Bernie Sanders campaign was creating a movement as opposed to just being an electoral campaign. Right? So you spread the idea of socialism to as broadly as possible that then prepares the ground for workers to actually be interested in unions or interested in organizing, which is absolutely bananas because, you know, I wrote that earlier piece called the deadbeat leftists pointing out that just, just empirically, if you talk to organizers from experience, the people who were already the diehard and committed leftists tend to actually flake out on an organizing campaign, or at least they certainly cannot be relied upon to actually step up to site a card, to come to a meeting, to take an action, you know, and so on. 

Whereas the people who you would least expect sometimes are the ones who step forward and become the most militant, the bottom line being debt. It's not as though people first get ideologically convinced to leftist ideals or socialism or unions, and then they start taking action on that basis. Workers take action because they're reasonably sure that their coworker next to them is also going to act and have their back and walk at the same time. So we do have this very backward idea of like, yeah, like we're radicalism comes from, 

Speaker 0 (11m 32s): Right. And it's not like, so from the piece and from all the work, the articles that puts out, it's not to suggest that ideas don't matter. But I think what you're putting forward is that the experience of work, the experience of struggling together is where knowledge flows from like the ideas and the practice or together the process of political activity and political activation. Am I wrong? And like posing that this is kind of the philosophy behind these articles. 

Speaker 2 (12m 2s): I think that's a good summation. And I think it's also basically what Mark's thought. Like Marx thought that he had a pejorative term for thinking that ideas were the driver of things. He called that ideology, right? It usually the way that people think that he used that term is completely mistaken. What he meant by ideology. He was criticizing other leftists of his period where people who thought that you come up with the right ideas and then society somehow falls into, into form behind those good right ideas. 

That's the position that Mark's criticized. That's why he was a materialist. He thought you had to change material conditions in order for society to actually evolve. And it's weird how that's now completely been lost now, you know, how much does it matter what Marx himself thought it doesn't necessarily, but I'm just clowning on the people who are getting it wrong. 

Speaker 0 (12m 52s): These are the people that say they're socialists. So you would think that they would take it's more serious. 

Speaker 2 (12m 57s): I am constantly I'm bowled over by how self-described socialists are not materialists. Like they think that you need the right elixir of ideas and opinions and, and then change follows from that. And I find that insane. Like there's an actual power struggle that we are basically all ensnared in and it's centered around the production or reproduction of society and who owns what and who is allowed to command other people to work. 

And the notion that what we have to do is like ideologically drive things forward first. I just, it blows my mind that so many socialists just are not materialists. And it's not to say that, like the only struggle that exists in the workplace, because there are some very well worn debate that I am kind of stepping into, but also trying not to step into with a piece about how workplace struggles are political centralism versus, you know, socialism or whatever. The point is just that there is a particular power struggle that is taken. 

Speaker 0 (14m 3s): What's interesting too, that you, right. When the socialists do take a material analysis of reality, the conclusion they come to is that the workplace is so exploitative and so oppressive that workers are incapable of organizing because they're so beaten down. Right. So this is another justification for just propping up their own kind of intellectual vanguardism. Yeah, exactly. How, how did, how did we get here? I guess this is kind of the question, like what, what happened to start allowing these ideas to really gain traction and it'd be so commonplace amongst socialist. 

Speaker 2 (14m 37s): I mean, I think that it's two things. One is that it's actually liberal individualism in another form. So once you start thinking that like ideas are the important thing and that you individually convert, people's like hearts and minds and, you know, that's your vision of politics. That's just basically the liberal individual, his premise, you know, of the democracies that we live in taken over and adopted by socialists. I think the other place that this comes from this sort of like magical thinking and lack of concrete, strategic thinking comes from is basically a position of powerlessness. 

The less specifically confident you are, of what you were capable of and aware you are of what you are capable of, what power you have, how much you have the capacity to exercise it, the more you start drifting into magical thinking, right? And that's when you see people start talking about things like swings and historical shifts and spontaneity and movements that come out of nowhere and times changing and ideas with when they, they have given up on the idea or afraid to measure the actual power that they have. 

Speaker 0 (15m 46s): I was reading your piece. I was pondering that question as I was reading it about like, how, how did we get here? Why is this so popular amongst socialists? At one thing that I just was trying to think of, and that I wanted to hear your thoughts on is there's a possibility that the union kind of bureaucratization of the labor movement itself, like the conservative business union model, gaining traction, becoming dominant has kind of enabled this position to take root. And I'm saying that because it seems to me like a lot of the people that propose these ways of thinking that workers are incapable of organizing their own unions. 

Everything has to be top down. And then even if you have a union of workers, you still have to outsource the politics to professionals for in political parties and so on is they seem to be the people that are usually staff positions or union official dumb. They're very detached from the workplace itself. And I wonder how much this is like a phenomenological experience of them being detached from the workplace and trying to figure out justifications for how they have any influencing role in a movement. Does that make any sense? 

That question? 

Speaker 2 (16m 54s): Yeah. I mean, I'm going to just galaxy brain along with cause so one of the things I also point out, I think quickly in that piece, and there's a hyperlink to a, another article from like a year or two ago that went way more in depth is there's this weird aspect or irony to the rank and file strategy. So the rank and file strategy, which you see in things like labor nodes and elsewhere is, and it's very popular amongst socialists. And it's basically socialists saying, well, what if he didn't just forsake unions and call them limited and, and consigned to reform as a men accommodating workers to capitalism, or what if instead, we actually took union seriously and tried to use them to the fullest extent possible. 

And the ironic thing about it is that on the one hand, it has this critique that unions are bureaucratized and calcified institutions that no longer really serve workers and let's take them all over. And so there's this lack of critique of why they became bureaucratized. And the story usually goes, and you see this all over the labor left that the wrong people got to be in charge, right? 1947 or 48 or whatever, Taft Hartley, we kicked out all the communists. 

We kicked out of the socialists and with, with that went any radicalism. And then we had people in charge who were inspired by communist and socialist ideals. And that's why the unions became bureaucratized. And that's why they are the way that they are. And if we want them to act more like working class fighting organizations, we have to put the right inspired leadership back in charge, but have exactly the same structures have exactly the same machinery. And I'm coming at this from a completely different position saying that the problem was not that we kicked out the socialist per se, the problems that were we, we replaced one kind of unionism, or maybe let's say many different kinds of unions unionism with one monolithic hegemonic, kind of like monocrop of unionism, which looks like you bargain a contract that has a duration of a couple of years. 

Grievances are settled through a procedure that ultimately ends in binding arbitration strikes take place after the contract has expired strikes, are these all out affairs that are led by the union bureaucracy? Because they're the ones with the keys to the coffers. We can't have workers taking action, Willy nilly, cause that would bankrupt us as a union. We need a stable union leadership. We need decisions to be, you know, somewhat centralized all of that. Now some of that was the state and legal system with, you know, businesses backing intelligently pushing unions into a corner. 

But some of it was also just, again, you know, there, the, the labor movement has always been many different things and has always had different forms. Some of that was just one particular form being allowed to win out out of all the other forms by the legal system, by the state. And it's a very boring and docile form of unionism that doesn't wield a tremendous amount of power going on strike after the collective Bart, the collective agreement has expired when the employer can anticipate it and can train management for years to take over your jobs and can legally hire scabs and can legally permanently replace you. 

Like, that's just not that powerful of a tactic. There are other forms of unionism that used to exist that were much more direct, much more disruptive, much more basically work her led ground up much more. I don't want to say spontaneous in the sense that they came out of nowhere, but much more taking action, more frequently, as opposed to very carefully orchestrated large strikes. You know, there were forms of unionism that were much more disruptive than the one we have today. And what I don't understand about the rank and file strategy is the idea that you take somebody who has socialist inspiration in their head, and then you put them in charge of that same bureaucratic grievance and bargaining procedure. 

And suddenly you have something different. Why 

Speaker 0 (21m 4s): I don't have the answer. 

Speaker 2 (21m 5s): The answer is you don't. I mean, like here's the thing. And, and I th the arguments that I end up getting in people, which, you know, there's truth to the fact that there are some unions who do as little as possible seemingly for their members who don't take on grievances, who don't really fight at contract negotiation time, who never go on strike, who don't mobilize their own membership, who don't really do crap. And kind of like, if anything, you know, like act as a sort of third party, bureaucratic HR type entity standing between workers and their bosses. 

Fine. That's true. And then there are other unions who are still very much within the national labor relations board and all B mold, which have a much more active membership in both posture. That's true on formal levels, people point to Chicago teacher's union, for example, that's true. There are differences between different what we may call business unions and LRB unions. That's absolutely granted. However, the people that I am writing this piece at are people who are concerned as most on the labor left are with rebuilding the labor movement. 

Like holy crap, we've been on the back foot for 70 years or something. At this point we need to build back up. We need to stop losing members, losing strikes, you know, seeing the real contents of our collective agreements eroded, you know, signing two tier contracts, losing fights, you know, and so on, right. We need to build back a fighting labor movement, but the vision for building back the fighting labor movement is still coloring within lines that I think are basically like fatally going to chuckle the mixing my metaphors, but like Pam string, the labor movement 

Speaker 0 (22m 53s): To that point, often the conclusion like the immediate strategy for these folks is not to change the machinery. Like you're talking about not to like build unions in a different model, but to simply tweak and reform labor law. And so still participate in the political arena only in so far as you try to make labor law friendlier to unionization. So there's still this kind of like trap the political imagination, even amongst people that foreground ideology so much in their conception of how you revitalize. 

Speaker 2 (23m 27s): No, absolutely. And that brings us back full circle to politics, right? So the idea is you have to elect the right sympathetic politicians and then those rights sympathetic politicians will change the laws. And then once the laws are changed in your favor, then you can actually start organizing and building class power back and a piece I've published even more recently than the one about workplace struggles, being political is called there ought to be a law. And it's just basically looking at the law and what purpose it really serves. And we tend to think that, that it serves the purpose that it's pretending to serve like, oh, we have a national labor relations extra that people can unionize. 

But in reality, what it is, is kind of solidifying a compromise to tamp down on some previous disruption and to basically prevent further progress. And that piece was primarily written by philosophy of law professor. I have co-authorship because I have a couple of sentences in there too, but really the brain was the brain child that were philosophy of law professor. Who's not even particularly working in, not working in the field of labor law, but I saw her articulate this position. 

I was like, I need you to write that down because you know, people need to be convinced of this point that this is what the law does. This is what the law has always done, which is that it's basically attempting to stabilize things and stabilize things in favor of the powerful. 

Speaker 0 (24m 52s): Yeah. Right. Cause if you understand it that way, if you look at it that way, even that narrative like you were talking about before, where people point to Taft Hartley as the regressive law that expelled communists and socialists and allowed unions to become conservative. Well, if you look at the law from the perspective that you're looking at it, that it actually captures concessions and tries to make Placid, you know, insurgencies that are happening, you would look at the NRA completely differently. The Wagner act is actually a much earlier moment in time when big concessions were being made amongst unions and capital. 

Speaker 2 (25m 28s): Yeah. And it just gave birth to the kind of unionism that I am broadly critiquing here, which is a unionism in which there is a kind of the fiction of a rational exchange of ideas between employers and workers. Arbitrated by, in the end, the state that's anybody who's been, who've gone up against an employer, knows that you're not involved in irrational exchange of ideas. You're involved in a power struggle. And I feel like what the labor relations act did in general was basically try to take most of the power struggle out of the equation and tame and rationalize that process pretend that it was more of an exchange. 

And I mean, you can see the same process happening in many countries. And in many contexts, it seems to me, and I'm not a historian. I'm not going to pretend like I can fully document this point right now. But the process seems to be that you saw kind of the table legs out from underneath worker power and sometimes an exchange for huge concessions in terms of things like wealth, basically. And then once the, the legs have been sufficiently compromised, you kick table over and people always sit up and take notice when the table gets kicked over, which like maybe that was Taft Hartley. 

Maybe it was like PATCO. Maybe it was, you know, right now, whatever, but they don't really notice or pay attention to when the song of the table lakes happens. And it's like, no, that's the problem. 

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Speaker 0 (28m 1s): On the subject of the workplace being political. One thing that I really appreciate about your piece is how you point out I'm going to quote from it that the workplace is where the power struggle between the working class and employing class plays out. I've often said this, as you know, just in conversation that work is at the center of capitalism. Therefore it is a political contest station, forming unions battling over work. But I just want to hear more about your thoughts on that because you also end the article with a whole bullet list of all the ways that work is political. 

And these are the questions that we need to be paying attention to when recognizing that's worth it is political. 

Speaker 2 (28m 41s): Yeah. And it feels weird to even have to say that work is at the center of capitalism. Like, again, this, this goes back to what we were describing, where there's this abstraction of politics is only taking place in like the properly designated big P politics sphere. But if you are, for example, a socialist and you think that that the major organization of our society is in that some people own basically society or what it needs to survive and others don't. 

Then of course, that's political, that's the organizing power struggle. And other things relate to that again, not to say that there's no other power struggles in society. Of course there are other power struggles in society. The idea behind the piece was to point out that when workers are, for example, trying to take power away from their employer and empower themselves because that's a zero sum equation, right there, that's political. That is a power struggle. And that has to do with the share of power in a microcosm, the working class and the owning class in that particular instance and how much those workers are going to be able to secure is going to depend on how much power they have relative to their employer. 

That's not to say that that's not bound by a broader context. So for example, if you organized one Amazon, you can't make it wages $50 an hour because there are other logistics companies, there are other Amazon warehouses for that matter, you can't simply, you're not bargaining in a vacuum kind of thing, but all of those broader contexts are still a matter of how much power the working class has to deploy where it really counts and where it really counts. As far as the capitalist class is concerned is in the workplace. That's where their profits derived from. 

I always tell workers in an organizing campaign to think from the perspective of their boss, because it's so clarifying in terms of what it is you have to do, what's actually going to impact them, whatever, but it's worth doing that in this instance with respect to, let's say the owning class, the business class in general, think from their perspective, how much do they really seem to give a shit about electoral politics? Like some, but also like not that much, you know, like they're not like desperately hoping that Biden defeats Sanders or that like Trump defeats Biden, like they know that they're going to get their facts scratched either way, right. 

To try to respond to your question a bit more directly. Yeah. I have that bullet list at the end of things. And I think that generally get overlooked as having political significance, but that I do think have tremendous political significance in the workplace. Like for example, the difference between formal recognition as a government mediated process, that happens in the case of, for example, a secret back ballot, NLRB election versus the meaningful recognition that a group of workers gets from an employer when they have the ability to really disrupt their business or whether or not workers are required to take grievances to an arbitration process, or sorry to a process that takes place off of the workforce and ultimately ends in arbitration or whether they can address grievances. 

And sometimes workers are very serious grievances, obviously things like health and safety, things like the pace of work, things like working conditions, whether they have the ability to address those directly on the floor. That's something that a lot of the labor left isn't really seemingly that interested in, right. They're interested in who's elected to an in-charge of unions, but not like the nature of grievance settlements. Like there's so much that we've just started taking for granted. 

Speaker 0 (32m 19s): So like the first bullet about like recognition, it is totally taken for granted that the only way to gain recognition is through a formal process, through a formal written process, through the NLRB, like it is hardly ever entertained the concept. Like you pointed out that workers can actually rest recognition from their employer through direct action. If they don't have to go through the NLRB process. I even think there is like a big stark difference between the perspectives of the labor will act and what you're putting for. 

Speaker 2 (32m 49s): Yeah. I mean, in the U S you can strike for recognition, for example. And in fact, that was one of the ways that the IWW, like in the last couple of decades tried to distinguish itself from other unions was they would always strike for recognition rather than filing for an election. Although, again, if you're what you're, if what you're trying to secure is some kind of formal recognition, then I'm not sure that like, that's still very different than your ability to rest concessions. 

And like in the Stardust campaign that I worked on, one of my favorite moments was the employer actually filed a petition to try to force them to have an election. And they quashed it, even though they would have won it. Cause they were just like, this is what we're doing here. You know? 

Speaker 0 (33m 33s): So the employers do absolutely know how the workplace has political and how labor law benefits them if they can funnel workers through that process. 

Speaker 2 (33m 41s): Oh, absolutely. Like that is what again, notice their actions and notice what they care about. And one thing that I've noticed is how there's a tremendous stock put in public campaigns and public embarrassment campaigns. And this has become a tactic that's, that's almost to ink almost can't find a union that doesn't do this at this point. So you try to publicly embarrass the employer, whether it's private sector, employer, public sector, employer, and that's just become a routine part of most unions repertoires. 

Right. And notice what the employer does when you drag the employer through the mud publicly, they don't generally respond in public. Like they do have PR teams and they do have the ability to write through and press releases and they will, they have their own boiler plate. Like this just happened with the times and the tech workers at the times who were trying to organize where the newspaper or the employer said, what employers always say, which is like, Hey, we're just trying to, we're just trying to talk. We're trying to go Shate. And instead of negotiating, you know, these yahoos are out trying to screw around or whatever, right. 

The employer always says they want to talk. So it's not the, that employers don't have their own PR strategies, but if you have a picket or a rally or a press release, or you try to drag an employer's name through the mud, would they turn around and do is have a captive audience meeting, right? Like they don't sit around and then, oh shit, let's write the best tweet to repudiate this terror. You know, they just, they, they know where the power struggle actually takes place. They sit around turn, turn around and talk to their own employees to try to defeat the boat, defeat the contract, whatever. 

Speaker 0 (35m 20s): Absolutely. I mean, I guess recently we saw Amazon and Bessemer. They had a very public high-profile union effort. And there were moments where CEOs since are the higher ranking officers of Amazon were on Twitter saying pretty ridiculous stuff. But I think that actually proves the point more that they don't give a shit about their public reputation for their public image. And Amazon clearly did not care that like players, unions, all these celebrities and stuff were saying, yay workers and Amazon vote for your union. They didn't give a damn about that happening. 

Speaker 2 (35m 52s): Absolutely not. And they don't also the only thing they don't give a damn about, which is really instructive. And I published a piece on this one is ULPs they don't give a shit. If they get a ULP, like please, who cares? They're relatively easy to fight. And you know, they don't have a tremendous success rate, but even when they do the penalties are so ridiculous, employers don't really care that much about ULPs. So what was the Barstool sports guy who said a bunch of ridiculous stuff on Twitter? Like I will never allow union or something like that. And he got taken to task for that. It's like, yeah. Who cares? So we had to take the tweet down, like who cares all that air war stuff. 

And even a lot of the legal stuff. I mean, employers, they fight to win, but they're eyes on the prize are on the workplace. 

Speaker 0 (36m 34s): Right? And again, coming back to the piece, the response typically from like a labor leftist that doesn't believe that workers are capable of organizing their own unions would be, well, this is why we need more restrictive labor laws. This is why we need penalties for ULPs and such. But I want to take the opportunity to kind of summarize the key points of the article. And it does seem at one sense, you're saying the workplace is political, but you're also saying we have to have more confidence in workers being able to organize and govern their own unions and recognize that as like the real power and muscle building of the working class. 

Speaker 2 (37m 10s): Well, look, you could legislate every worker to be in a union. Let let's go, let's go pie in the sky and say, we don't just make it easier to organize, but we make it such that like any union could point their magic union, one at a workplace and snap up a cert there. How does that actually help? Right. If you don't have a genuinely organized workforce, that's capable of inflicting pain on the employer, they're not going to get anything. They're not going to rest any concessions. They're not going to win anything. 

And not that I'm opposed to labor law that is more favorable to organizing and more favorable to unions. A lot of it's just ridiculously punitive to unions and to workers. But labor law has been shaped in such a way in Canada, for example, to make it relatively easier to organize a unit. But the trade-off is that workers are all the more constrained and hamstrung in their capacity to take action. So there's a higher union density in Canada, and there's even some of that specific provisions that labor lefters and us want like card check certification in some jurisdictions and first contract arbitration. 

And it doesn't mean the labor movement. There is any stronger, like there's no, there aren't, there are no shortcuts to the fact that you have to build worker power. 

Speaker 0 (38m 25s): Well that I want it to shift and do it like kind of a new segment on labor with where we hear organizing queries and questions from people on the ground, seeking advice, seeking some kind of like informal council of sorts. And so I wanted to hear your thoughts about something that came my way recently. It was, there's not many details about the campaign, but worker reached out, said I'm at the very beginning stages of a campaign and I'm starting to get really worried that we need to have big cash reserves for this campaign to be successful. 

What do you think about that? So, so what are you, what would you say to this person with that query? 

Speaker 2 (39m 3s): This is tough. Cause I'd be, I mean, my first question is like, well, what do you need big cash reserves for? Right. So there's surely some stuff about the situation that I'm not aware of an overlooking and, you know, welcome this person to come back with more detail to correct me on what I'm about to say. But I have found that the most powerful forms of unionism that I have witnessed have basically required no money or very little money. If you take staff out of the equation and you do have genuinely worker led campaign, then it doesn't, it doesn't take money. 

And I also find that you don't really need money to motivate people. Like I'm not saying there's no place ever for paying somebody in nominal amount in order to like take care of administrative work, but the crucial frame of a campaign in which you are just fighting for your lives, you don't need to motivate people's actions within that with money. If you do, then you have a motivational sort of deficit problem that has to do with the campaign, right. And then taking action, very intelligent, coordinated, disruptive action. 

Likewise doesn't cost any money. I mean, I think there's so much to be said for marches on the boss, low level forms of work refusal and working to rule very quick strikes things that don't involve paying someone, paying a group of workers to be on a picket line for weeks at a time. Like those things I think are in many cases, actually more worrisome to an employer, especially at the organizing stages. If you have a big walkout strike, you will all be replaced. 

I just, especially if it's relatively smaller workplace, like a hundred percent guaranteed, if you can learn how to actually wield some control over work in the workplace that I think employers don't have as much of a playbook for in response. Like if you guys are genuinely broadly, thoroughly coordinated and you have the ability to, to kind of dictate some terms as to how and when and where the work gets done again, that's tremendously powerful and it doesn't really cost anything. 

And a lot of the stuff that I see campaigns spend money on, whether it's, you know, usually staff in some form or another, so it's cons, maybe it's swag, maybe it's, you know, what have you, none of that stuff is, is as powerful as the stuff that basically comes for free. 

Speaker 0 (41m 31s): Now, just following through with this, if this worker, this person were to reach out and ask your opinion about whether or not they need to affiliate, because I think that's kind of what they were getting at too is like, do we need affiliation to have resources and big cash reserves? What, what would you say to that? 

Speaker 2 (41m 46s): I am not opposed to affiliation. Like there's a lot of critiques to be made of any existing union. Having said that they have tremendous resources at their disposal, right? So in terms of stress staff, strategic advice, legal help, you know, banners, pins, what have you like, I, I don't think I've ever counseled river, would counsel a group of workers, like definitely shunned that union that wants to help you. And there is something to be said for that. And even in the case of the IWW, which is what I primarily organized with, I tell workers, despite all its problems like that there are resources there that they want and that they want to take advantage of and that they shouldn't ignore. 

You know? So I think that going it alone is pretty risky most of the time, but I don't think that you affiliate because like, what do they say, cash reserves. I just don't think that that's like, there's, there's something funny going on there. And I just want to ask a bunch of questions basically. 

Speaker 0 (42m 40s): Yeah, yeah. I think that's right on. I think the only thing I would add too, in addition to what you're saying is that if this question is coming from, as being motivated by the concern that people are going to get fired and you're going to have to like pay their wages, you know, for the time that they're trying to get reinstated to the job or find a new job, like you're probably too far ahead of yourself already. If you're only at the beginning stages of the campaign, you're already pondering, like how are we going to pay for people when they get fired? I think you might want to flow down a little and make sure you just focus on talking to people and like doing some mapping. 

Speaker 2 (43m 15s): I do think there's something to be said for being risk averse. Like you don't want to be Roy Jenkins as in kind of like kamikaze your way into a situation, get yourself, or a bunch of people fired. In fact, I think there is, I've seen that in the IWW a lot and in a lot of organizing, especially among maybe like younger people, it's like, you're, you're creating an impression that, that what organizing is, is getting fired, you know, and I've been part of campaigns where lots of people have gotten fired and it's not a good thing. And we want to be risk averse. And I think you can be risk averse while still building a tremendous amount of power and taking a lot of really effective action. 

I also don't think you can afford to really sustain anybody once even one person, once they get fired. I mean, you can do. And I've seen again, campaigns do this, they'll do intensive, intensive fundraisers, and then it's never enough money. Even if only one or a handful of people got fired. It costs a lot of money to keep a human being alive. You know, they have rent, they have food, they have bills. They have like student loans or like kids' mouths to feeds or feed or pets to feed. We can't afford that. You can't afford that. And if that's what you, as a campaign are doing as an organizing campaign, that's trying to organize a workplace. 

Then I think that first of all, you need a strategy for basically when people do get fired, that has more to do with rebuilding power in the workplace than taking care of those who have been fired. And second, I would never want someone to approach a campaign, almost selling kind of like an insurance policy. Like, Hey, we, the union, our job is when you get fired for doing this, we're going to pay your rent or your student loans. Like that is not what organizing I think should do. 

Speaker 0 (44m 50s): Yeah, I think that's great advice. So for folks, if you have any organizing inquiries, you have questions, obstacles you run into on the campaign. You want to send them our to labor wave radio, do that labor wave Read them on the show, ask our guests for their input and their thoughts on it. And hopefully that'll help you out. Marilyn Garneau. Thanks so much for coming again on labor wave. It's always a pleasure. 

Speaker 2 (45m 14s): Thank you for having me risk averse in the sense of specifically trying to avoid a what's that what's that like meme, the guy who just like have a bunk as his way into, It's like a guy's name. I have to, you know, it's like a beam for like, just being like, let's go and then immediately getting killed, like, Okay. 

All right. So let me start over. No, it's like, it's like a game Leroy Jenkins. Okay. Okay. See, I didn't get this reference until somebody explained it to me either, but okay. People will. Okay. 


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