It’s All Relative: Building The Richmond GMB, Part 1
By Kenneth Yates
This is an article written for the ‘Building Blocks’ column found in the September 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker. You can view a .pdf of the issue [ here ]. The ‘Building Blocks’ column asked different branches to write about the trials and tribulations of building a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. This is my perspective.
In January 2010 several community organizers reacted to a trend of notices appearing in the more destitute areas of Richmond, Va. These notices declared that public transportation access would be reduced or eliminated, and fares would be raised to make up for a shortfall in the operating budget of about $1.5 million. In a city where the vast majority of riders are dependent on public transportation in order to survive, this seemed a logical place to begin organizing.
In part one of this series on building the Richmond General Membership Branch (GMB), I would like to address, from my perspective, what led to our initial development and why it may be important for struggling or prospective IWW branches to choose an issue—if not shop- or industry- based organizing—that addresses working people’s concerns on a practical level and helps develop class consciousness.
I joined the IWW in August 2009 as an at-large member, online, while visiting a friend in Minneapolis. Why I didn’t just find a Twin Cities delegate and sign up through them, I don’t know. Shortly after joining, I received my red card, a General Organization Bulletin (GOB), and something about voting in some referendum thing. Regardless of my enthusiasm, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. As an at-large member, I felt a little disconnected, but I wore my pin proud, read the Industrial Worker and dove into the history of the union.
I feel it’s important to point out that the labor movement in Virginia is virtually non-existent. Because of Virginia being a “right-to-work” state, union density is less than 4.6 percent and people believe this means that unions are either illegal in Virginia, or that you have to be grandfathered in. You can imagine how abstract and frightening the concept of organizing in the workplace must be to people who suddenly realize they have that right.
Naturally, knowing we had a lot to learn, we decided to go with what we knew and took to the streets. After putting in some research, we realized that no one in the city was addressing the issues of public transportation—including the impending fare increase and route reductions. If people were addressing these issues, it wasn’t from the perspective of the community who was dependent on it. Rather, it took on more of an environmentalist, or “how can we get more white people to ride,” slant. We thought the transit-dependent communities required an organization all their own that wasn’t mired with alliances to nonprofit organizations, developers or business associations.
Over the next few months, we took it upon ourselves and conducted a lot of independent research. We became intimate with the transit system—how it’s funded and structured, where it goes and doesn’t go, etc. We familiarized ourselves with transit riders unions in other cities like Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Loredo, Texas. We decided that a transit riders union was something Richmond needed, but questions still remained: How would it be organized? Who would organize it? How should it be structured?
Those of us doing the research happened to also be interested in building the Richmond GMB. This would bring us to about three card-carrying members. We thought that that this would be a good first campaign to take up under the banner of the One Big Union. We took our research to a May Day workshop titled “Why Richmond needs the Industrial Workers of the World” in hopes of gauging people’s interest and recruiting more organizers. In this workshop, we gave a brief history of the union, dispelled the aforementioned myths that unions are illegal in Virginia, discussed the IWW’s organizational structure, and attempted to articulate why the IWW and revolutionary unionism is important to building a principled and effective anti-capitalist working-class movement and culture.
We knew that people would want to know what we were doing right now, so we made our case for the Richmond Transit Riders Union (RTRU), discussed the role of IWW members in the initial research and what our roles as organizers would be in building the organization. We emphasized the importance of approaching the issue of transportation justice from the perspective of class, and that by doing so we would inherently create dialog around relative issues. These include issues that are currently being addressed as unrelated single concerns: Unemployment, housing, racism, sexism, accessibility and immigration, among others. At the end of the workshop we encouraged people to join and announced what would become the first of many Richmond GMB meetings.
From there, over the course of three weeks, a motley, but growing, crew of Wobblies took to the streets armed with clipboards and fliers announcing an interest meeting for the formation of the RTRU. We introduced ourselves as members of the IWW, and many of us being choice riders, made it clear that we wanted to help organize, not be decision-makers. We talked to people as they waited for their buses, collecting over 500 contacts. We then invited every single person to a presentation where we laid out all that we learned and made the case for a transit-dependent led organization. All the hard work resulted in over 30 riders attending, and the idea was enthusiastically received. The RTRU was born and thus our first campaign deemed a success.
For many, if not all of us, the community approach was a natural first step to building a branch that would become a driving force in how people view the local and international labor movement. It’s difficult to be completely objective; however I think it’s safe to say that Richmond has become a more dynamic city in terms of class-based organizing since the IWW was established in town.
Our involvement as the IWW continues with the RTRU as a partner organization, and we have gained several members from RTRU to the IWW directly due to our involvement.
Fellow Worker Bizhan Khodabandeh designed a local emblem for the Richmond, Virginia General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. And in collaboration with the Literature Dept. associated with the International IWW General Head Quarters, we were able to produce a beautiful Union Shop made t-shirt [via Sweet Patches in Cincinatti, OH].
If you are a member of the Industrial Workers of the World or a supporter of revolutionary organized labor, please consider purchasing a t-shirt. Proceeds will go directly towards furthering the work of the Richmond GMB as an organization. You may purchase a t-shirt directly from the Richmond branch by writing email@example.com or you can purchase directly from the IWW Lit Department [ here ].
About The Image: The emblem is based off of the Virginia State seal. We decided to utilize the image of the black cat, also known as the sabocat which is a reference to rank and file led wildcat strikes. In this image, the sabocat is standing on a defeated domesticated cat, which can represent either the employer or union aristocracy (ie. union leadership, or the top down hierarchy of mainstream/trade unions, and their conservative socialist practices and pro-capitalist policies).
The clipboard reads “contract” referring to both to the IWW’s abhoration towards contractual unionism, instead championing the empowering practice of ‘solidarity unionism‘. Contract based unionism can sometimes lend itself to relinquishing power otherwise held by workers to both the union leadership and the employers. Another interpretation of a “contract” could take on the meaning associated with the employee handbooks employers often make us sign when/before we start a job.
The cartoon style of the cats was inspired by 1950’s era cartoonist Walter Kelly, specifically the anthropomorphic and agitational characteristics of Pogo Possum. The characters are designed to be as representative of all workers as is possible, taking on an androgynous disposition for the purpose of creating an image that is not centered around those of European descent, a particular gender, nationality, or industry.
How To Protect Yourself Against Wage Theft
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. For many of us, as wage earners, our livelihoods depend (read: forced to work) on wages, especially when the dependence is immediate, meaning you live paycheck to paycheck. We are essentially at the will of the employer, for better and for worse; enslaved by the wage system in which employers use to exploit the working class. This is where the term ‘wage slave’ stems from.
So what can we do to protect ourselves from such exploitation?
One thing we must always remember — labor creates all wealth, and no boss should come between us and that wealth. It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism, to organize ourselves, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but to carrying on production when the capitalist system is abolished.
Exploitation takes on many shapes and sizes, but today we’re going to talk about one of the most complex and growing problems for workers as employers try all they can to squeeze as much surplus/free labor out of their workers. That is the problem of “Wage Theft” — when employers illegally underpay their workers. The top two methods of wage theft are unpaid overtime and employee misclassification.
Here are some simple, tried and true ways to protect yourself and your fellow workers:
Track Your Hours – The U.S. Department of Labor has created a smartphone app to help workers track their hours. If you don’t have a smart phone, it is still important to keep your own records. Write down hours worked, break times, and any over time worked.
Keep A Work Journal – A workplace journal is always a good idea. The more detailed your journal is, the better your chances will be when challenging your employers Unfair Labor Practices (ULP). Keep your journal in your car and write down times, dates, names of potential witnesses, and any other detail you think would be helpful later, not while working. [ Download ] this printable template create by the Tulsa Industrial Workers of the World.
Fill Out Tax Forms – Being paid under the table sometimes can be really great, but it also means you are extremely vulnerable to being underpaid, or not paid at all. Without proof of employment, it’s your word against theirs. Following the above practices will help you in your case, but you should demand to be placed officially on the books.
Know Your Rights – Familiarize yourself with your rights and who you can call to file a complaint or ask for advice. Download [ http://richmondiww.org/files/2011/06/workersrights_june_2011A.pdf ]
Organize/Unionize – We stress that an organized workplace is the safest workplace. Not only can you safeguard yourself from wage theft, but also demand other changes that make your workplace experience more tolerable. A union is defined by two or more workers acting in concert with one another, and is protected by the government. To act as a union does not require a large organization or external leadership, only organized solidarity among fellow workers.
If you would like to learn how to organize your place of work, get in touch with your local Industrial Workers of the World organizer. The Richmond General Membership Branch of the IWW can be reached at www.richmondiww.org or 804-496-1568.
[ download ] this fact sheet and give it to your co-workers!
Another May Day Poster in .PDF format: May Day 2012 Poster
May Day! Workers of the World Unite!
This is our day! International Workers Day! Our day to recognize and appreciate the social and economic achievements of the international labor movement. The struggle began in 1884 when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution that would enact an eight-hour workday beginning on May 1, 1886. On May 4th, 1886 during a general strike for the eight hour day in Chicago, police fired on strikers and killed a dozen people in what has become known as the Haymarket Massacre. In 1890, Labor activists, Leftists, Socialists and Anarchists began celebrating May 1 as the International Worker’s Holiday to achieve “…the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, the class demands of the proletariat, and universal peace.”
With the specter of a market free of government regulation that reaches far beyond the familiar borders of the United States, there is a need, more than ever, for a labor movement that demands for the rights of working people, and holds accountable the government and corporations for the injustices that we are forced to endure at the mercy of the wealthy.
The Struggle Continues! We must Organize!
There is no time better than now! From the office worker in a business suit to the construction worker in coveralls, no one has been left untouched. Corporate greed permeates every aspect of our lives as workers are laid off without benefits and left to fight to save their homes from foreclosure. While the city becomes a destination for the suburban middle class, protections for lower income residents are virtually non existent. Urban planners are heralded for ushering new life, income and opportunities into the area, but they also inadvertently pave the way for gentrification and the displacement of those who depend on the proximity of jobs and public transportation to survive. Developers left unchecked by city government are threatening Public Housing residents with the prospect of becoming homeless. All the while, institutional racism continues to permeate our culture, with hate groups on the rise in both membership and influence. And despite the popular movement demanding health care for all, the decision has been handed over to the insurance companies.
The economy has reached an all time low and workers are left to fend for themselves with few solutions. Immigrant and migrant workers continue to be scapegoated drawing attention away from the role of corporations and the destabilizing effects of free trade agreements. Recognizing our similarities rather than differences, we are united around the core principle that we must link arms and fight back in the spirit of those that came before us in a true display of solidarity.
This May Day we wish to demonstrate the presence of a labor movement in Richmond that is ready to fight against the multitude of injustices in our communities. We wish to unite individuals, faith based groups, unions, students, teachers and progressive organizations who will stand in solidarity with one another, for economic & social justice, freedom, and equality! And overall, we wish to better define the overlapping issue of capitalism that exists at the root of all our working class woes.
A Schedule of Events Can Be Found Here: [ http://flyingbrickrva.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/rva-may-day-weekend-schedule-of-events/ ]
This is a ‘worker testimonial’ from Keith P. in the campaign against ‘wage theft’ at 3rd St. Diner. If you worked for Mr. Polyaris and have a work story you would like to share? Please consider submitting your testimonial here: [ http://tinyurl.com/85ezo5g ]
To view the call to action visit [ http://richmondiww.org/2012/04/14/direct-action-demand-unpaid-wages-for-worker-at-3rd-st-diner/ ]
I was employed by the Pyliaris Corporation from 1991 to 2003. During most of that time I worked at 3rd St Diner as a cook. During those years, I saw countless numbers of employees deprived of wages that were rightfully and legally owed to them. The restaurant and nightclub industries have a high turnover rate and often employees who worked for Pyliaris for a short period of time would be unpaid if they were only owed a single paycheck. Waitresses would often not receive their minimum wage as required by law but would be forced to work for tips only. Employees who worked overtime would be deprived of overtime pay.
Pyliaris was able to get away with this because most of his employees were either naïve young people or persons with limited education or socioeconomic advantages and who were not expecting to be taken advantage of in this way. Consequently, they did not understand the necessity of documenting the number of hours worked, saving old paycheck stubs, etc. in case they needed to bring a complaint to the Department of Labor concerning unpaid wages. Therefore, most complaints against Pyliaris ended up being a matter of his word against theirs.
I generally avoided conflicts of this type as I had a positive working relationship with Mr. Pyliaris’ father and was therefore considered “hands off” regarding these kinds of labor practices. However, when Mr. Pyliaris father relocated to Greece towards the end of my tenure with the Pyliaris Corp. things began to change. At the time, I was a bouncer/manager at one of Mr. Pyliaris gentleman’s clubs, The Candy Bar, and I typically worked 80 hours a week. I accumulated a good number of overtime hours for which I was owed back pay at overtime rates but was never paid. Fortunately, I had long been aware of Pyliaris’ unethical and illegal labor practices and had fully documented the number of hours I had worked and what I was owed. I filed a complaint with both the federal and state departments of labor and Pyliaris was ordered to compensate me. Further, a general investigation of Pyliaris’ labor practices was conducted and Pyliaris was likewise ordered to go back and pay a good number of other former employees past wages that were owed to them. This investigation transpired in 2003.
Mr. Pyliaris had essentially made a career out of depriving employees of wages that are rightfully owed to them. I know of no one who has ever worked for Pyliaris who has not complained of this issue or been aware of it. Additionally, Pyliaris has engaged in the sexual harassment of female employees. I know of at least one former employee who filed a lawsuit over such a matter in the mid-1990s. Pyliaris has also been arrested on numerous occasions for gratuitous assaults of patrons of his establishments when an altercation has occurred and has even been imprisoned for such conduct on at least one occcasion. [click here]