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Benjamin Ferguson's Letter to Eat the State

What the fuck!? You bunch of lame, loser lefties! By carrying ACORN in your 'activist' listing, you are helping unwitting people become scabs for an organization whose workers have been on strike for union recognition for a month. The president of ACORN wrote in Labor Notes about 4 years. ago an article which supported union organizing on a shop-by-shop basis. Now he sings a different tune as his workers in Philly & Seattle have joined the IWW, & you sleazy bastards couldn't care less! Why not change your name to BOW DOWN TO THE STATE? You're playing the same goddamn game as those you bag on in your now-useless rag! Motherpigfuck you all to hell!!

Editor Geov Parrish responds to Benjamin Ferguson

The month-long ACORN strike has put ETS!, like many individuals, in an awkward position. Several of us have worked with IWW in the past, but we've had great affinity and respect for both IWW and ACORN. We ran a pro-strike insert flyer, along with a story (2-28-01), but also continued to run (in a separate layout process) an ongoing ACORN directory listing.

That six-month ACORN ad is due to expire. At the last meeting, we decided not to insert ourselves further into the strike by pulling one side's ads, though we will not solicit ACORN ads until there's an amicable settlement. We have had no contact with ACORN since the strike began.

It's a complex situation. Unlike this week's angry letter-writer (who never asked whom among us makes ad decisions or why -- anyone associated with the paper is just a pig-fucking tool of The Man), we've all felt the need for nuance, not rhetoric, and to answer questions. Quite simply, a number of conflicting strike opinions are circulating in the community, and rather than having us judge who's "right" and tell you what to think, we'll lay out what we've heard, invite response, and you can decide.

If even a fraction of the striking ACORN workers' allegations are true -- missed, late, and partial paychecks, poor worker safety, scab workers -- ACORN, locally and nationally, is guilty of utterly reprehensible conduct.

But there's more. A personal friend of mine witnessed the original presentation of demands for unionization by workers. She reported that the workers were out picketing without even waiting for a response. She, and others, also say that the workers hadn't signed cards -- a basic unionization step whose omission would leave ACORN's striking workers open to all sorts of legal harassment, including termination.

Quite a few sympathetic radical unionists similarly question the IWW's competence. They ask: are the modern-day Wobblies -- who don't hold a single actual union contract -- a 'real' union, or a tiny, dysfunctional ideological construct, invoking the glory of 80+ years ago? Or both? The local IWW's track record on this score, from Anacortes to the Lincoln Mini-Mart, and back through strikes by canvassers at local peace and environmental groups years ago, isn't encouraging. They don't win -- so far.

That complicates any assessment. But one wonders -- if it's true -- why the IWW turned down an ACORN offer of recognition of a national bargaining unit? The laborites are asking whether inexperienced ideologues are leading -- and in some cases, speaking out of turn on behalf of -- a half dozen even less experienced, genuinely aggrieved workers, down a path from which no jobs may emerge?

At this point, ACORN staffers across the country are organizing. Is ACORN using its local/national dynamic as an excuse to avoid accountability? Is IWW? Are ACORN's national SEIU patrons fighting unionization? At minimum, ACORN has not negotiated in good faith. Has the IWW? Or are the Wobs spoiling for a fight, at the expense of the workers they're defending?

ACORN says its locals are not only self-funding but tithe 17% of their income to the national outfit. Is it true? If so, who's responsible for Seattle's allegedly short paydays? The Executive Director, Doug Bloch? The canvassers who presumably raise the operating money? How can ACORN afford to double-shift canvassers (for safety) if it can't afford the ones it has? Is it simply overstaffed? If so, wouldn't layoffs be the logical outcome of the organizing drive?

Finally, and most importantly, when the original grievances involved are endemic to organizing jobs in the lowly left, why target the only paid grass roots outfit in the region that was actively organizing low-income people of color? Who benefits if ACORN folds here? (Or operates with scabs?) Who loses, and why? This is not some greedy widgetmaker, seizing labor's rightful share of the gains of its production. It's a local nonprofit trying, by all accounts, to do valuable work on limited resources, and the local IWW seems intent on destroying it.

To be replaced with -- what? If the IWW settles into intractable demands, it doesn't benefit workers or ACORN -- just the redlining mortgage lenders and vindictive bureaucrats ACORN once fought, and that the Wobblies have never concretely worked against. The ACORN workers are young, smart, and can get other jobs (some reportedly already have). ACORN's poor, largely non-white clientele, the strike's most hurt 'side,' doesn't get out so easily.

These aren't our questions; they're out in the community already. Before blindly rushing to the axiom that All Workers Must Be Supported At Whatever Cost -- which, admittedly, is what I tend to blindly embrace myself -- these questions need answering. Responses, from all sides, are welcome.

IWW Response #1 - Posted by IWW Member, John Persak

Dear Editors, Eat the State:

Since there is an unfair labor practice strike on at ACORN that our union is working on winning, I cannot muster the time to respond to all of the falsehoods expressed by ACORN management (Doug Bloch, Wade Rathke, et. al.) that your esteemed publication saw fit to put into print under the pretext of "generating discussion". I do know that the workers knew what they were doing when they handed Bloch the union cards and asked to bargain.

I will point out that while Mr. Parrish is claiming that he hasn't taken sides, he has clearly indicated that he is only listening to one side; he made no effort to contact striking workers at all before presenting what "everyone else" is saying. He simply spoke to his friends that are friendly with management, and didn't bother finding out the facts. Perhaps if Parrish instead pointed out that the whole dispute would have been averted if Bloch and company had just agreed to sit down and bargain, we might be getting somewhere close to the truth. In fact, the union is ready and willing to drop everything and bargain at any time Bloch is ready.

I invite you to provide space for a letter from the strikers themselves, and let them clarify their own position. And I urge all readers to go to the IWW website and learn the real story of this national organizing campaign. In the meantime, may I suggest that ETS! be used to help workers, not undermine their hard work for justice at work.

IWW Response #2 - Posted by Steve Ongerth

Geov Parrish's response is littered with (at best) incomplete information and quite possibly (at worst) deliberately misleading information. He writes:

But there's more. A personal friend of mine witnessed the original presentation of demands for unionization by workers. She reported that the workers were out picketing without even waiting for a response. She, and others, also say that the workers hadn't signed cards -- a basic unionization step whose omission would leave ACORN's striking workers open to all sorts of legal harassment, including termination.

Many are looking at the Seattle ACORN Workers' actions and the support of the IWW in a vacuum. What happened in Seattle wasd didn't give a reason for doing so. The workers in Seattle reacted the way they did out of solidarity for a fired worker, and because they knew that ACORN would resist if they did otherwise. Furthermore, according to ACORN's "People's Platform", workers should "have the right to strike when necessary". What exempts ACORN from its own platform? Parrish continues:

Quite a few sympathetic radical unionists similarly question the IWW's competence. They ask: are the modern-day Wobblies -- who don't hold a single actual union contract -- a 'real' union, or a tiny, dysfunctional ideological construct, invoking the glory of 80+ years ago? Or both?

This is inaccurate. The modern-day Wobblies do hold contracts. For example, in Berkeley, CA (the area represented by the East Bay IWW General Membership Branch, of which I am a six-year member), the IWW has had a contract with the Berkeley Ecology Center Curbside Recycling Center for 12 years. We renegotiated it last year and are currently renegotiating it this year. It is a very good contract, and the workers at Curbside convinced the Yard Recyclers at the neighboring Community Conservation Centers to unionize with us. They did. We ran a very successful unionization campaign and won our NLRB election by a unanimous vote! How often does that happen? Currently we are negotiating that shop's first contract. Furthermore, there are a number of youth shelters and non-profits in Philadelphia that have IWW contracts. With all due respect, y'all at ETS! should check your facts a little more carefully before making such broad sweeping generalizations.

The local IWW's track record on this score, from Anacortes to the Lincoln Mini-Mart, and back through strikes by canvassers at local peace and environmental groups years ago, isn't encouraging. They don't win -- so far.

Wrong, as I have just pointed out. Also, recall recent Labor History. Think back to 1997. Remember the Picket of the Neptune Jade cargo ship in Oakland? Remember how a coalition of unionists and radicals successfully turned away a ship, owned by Neptune Oriented Lines, loaded by scab dockers in Liverpool? Remember how, after six days of successful pickets and solidarity by the Longshoremen and Teamsters? Remember how it then went to Seattle and, inspired by Oakland, picketers kept the Neptune Jade from unloading? Recall that the same happened in Vancouver and then Japan? Remember how Neptune Oriented Lines had to eventually sell the Neptune Jade for scrap, because no one would unload that ship? Who was it that staffed that very first picketline? Who was on every picketline in Oakland after the first one? You guessed it; Wobblies! In fact, it was IWW members who convinced Robert Irminger (a Wobbly himself) to go through with the first picket after weloch? The canvassers who presumably raise the operating money? How can ACORN afford to double-shift canvassers (for safety) if it can't afford the ones it has? Is it simply overstaffed? If so, wouldn't layoffs be the logical outcome of the organizing drive?

If anything ACORN is understaffed. According to inside sources, the Oakland ACORN office wants to have ten fulltime organizers. According to some ACORN workers, one of whom worked in the Oakland office and then quit, the plan is to have 10 full-time Organizers. Right now there is but one. The average turnover rate for ACORN workers is exceedingly high. The average tenure of most ACORN workers seems to be roughly one week. Furthermore, according to inside sources, ACORN has money earmarked for the creation of new ACORN offices in communities where no ACORN office currently exists (for example, San Francisco). Why is ACORN earmarking money for new ACORN offices when they cannot even manage to keep staff around for more than one week? I think the answer is obvious. ACORN management accepts high turnover as a given.

Finally, and most importantly, when the original grievances involved are endemic to organizing jobs in the lowly left, why target the only paid grass roots outfit in the region that was actively organizing low-income people of color? Who benefits if ACORN folds here? (Or operates with scabs?) Who loses, and why? This is not some greedy widgetmaker, seizing labor's rightful share of the gains of its production. It's a local nonprofit trying, by all accounts, to do valuable work on limited resources, and the local IWW seems intent on destroying it.

Look, it was Doug Bloch who said, publicly, that he would be willing to "burn down the village in order to save it", not the IWW. But the point you raise about ACORN not being some capitalist widgit maker is precisely the point. The fact that ACORN is acting like any union busting company says to me that ACORN is capable of being far worse than the capitalist bastards, because they ought to know better!

To be replaced with -- what? If the IWW settles into intractable demands, it doesn't benefit workers or ACORN -- just the redlining mortgage lenders and vindictive bureaucrats ACORN once fought, and that the Wobblies have never concretely worked against. The ACORN workers are young, smart, and can get other jobs (some reportedly already have). ACORN's poor, largely non-white clientele, the strike's most hurt 'side,' doesn't get out so easily.

Look dude, nobody in the IWW wants to see ACORN destroyed. And people of color and the poor were organizing long before ACORN came along, and even after ACORN did originate, many of the gains made since then cannot be solely attributed to ACORN. In any case, now reports are surfacing that ACORN, an organization that claims to fight against predatory lending has cut deals with a predatory lending institution in Boston. This strike is causing the public to sit up and take notice. Just how committed to its principles is ACORN anyway? If ACORN is so quick to treat its own workers as expendable throw-aways, what can be expected if ACORN is offered a deal to get involved in "inside-the-beltway" politics in Washington? Will they cut a deal to keep themselves in positions of, albeit low-level power, in exchange for a few (or man) non-white constituents, like so many big-environmental organizations sacrificed their constituents in the 1990s to make a few more bucks? ACORN seems more than willing to abandon their principles when it suits them; how can they be held up as a model institution for anyone?

Geov Parrish Responds - (Two Weeks Later)

All of us at ETS! who saw Steve's e-mail commented, gratefully, on his willingness to take the concerns we listed at face value and to reply with facts and history many people--including some of us--didn't know. Thank you.

We got several letters from IWW members which assumed that we were editorializing. I stated quite clearly--several times--in my response last issue that "these aren't our questions"--that is, that they weren't the beliefs of ETS! as a collective, let alone me personally (I hadn't put mine in print before; see this issue's Shorts for that). We're not printing those letters here primarily for space reasons (we have, by my count, 17 non-ACORN letters we've held while devoting this section to ACORN for two issues); also because Steve covered most of the substantive concerns; but also because those letters are flatly wrong, and we stated so last issue. We reported issues we'd heard raised in the community. I left quite a few out; with more and better knowledge, I would have left others out, and put still others in.

Contrary to some of those letters, I had spoken to ACORN strikers before last issue, and the criticisms of IWW we relayed came not from ACORN's supporters but primarily from pro-labor people appalled by ACORN but also concerned about the IWW's tactics. That's something the IWW needs to address without vitriol. Meanwhile, it was even more telling that neither IWW's critics nor ACORN's supporters or management chose to respond at all.