David Bacon Stories & Photographs


Jane Slaughter, editor
LaborNotes, Detroit, 2005, 372pp, $24
Reviewed by David Bacon, Z Magazine, 9/05

Your boss will hate this book.

But if you’re in need of workplace justice, and willing to do something about it, you’ll love it.

For the same reason. The Troublemaker’s Handbook is exactly that – a good collection of advice and experience, to help guide and inspire a new generation of folks who see fighting on the factory floor (an expression that’ s a little out of date, I admit, but comes from my own personal history) as one of the main focal points for any movement for social change.

This book, just out from LaborNotes, is actually the second edition. Dan LaBotz authored the first in 1991, which became the bible for union and community activists who wanted practical help in organizing at work. LaBotz is still very much a contributor to this one, and writes one of the first chapters. But this edition has been broadened to include a whole generation of people brought into activity and leadership by LaBotz’ original work, and by the magazine which backs it up.

LaborNotes is a forum for discussing developments in the labor movement, containing news and opinion, especially oriented toward ongoing efforts to democratize US trade unions and make them more militant organizations. The Troublemaker’s Handbook, ably edited by longtime LaborNotes staffer Jane Slaughter, is in part a distillation of the experiences described every month in the magazine. But it is also a guide – for the individual worker with a problem limited to a small group of workmates, for a caucus within a union, or for a community organization seeking workplace justice for its constituency.

“It’s not that we want to cause trouble for its own sake,” explains Ellen David Friedman at the beginning, “but that we want to fix problems we see around us in our workplaces. It may be that something unfair has happened to you, or to someone you work with. This ... is about doing something about it. For us ... that’s organizing. For the boss ... that’s trouble.”

The Troublemaker’s Handbook is, in some ways, a clever disguise. It offers itself as simply a manual for workplace activity. It is really an indirect exposition of a fundamental philosophy about social change.

The book rests on a set of political ideas or assumptions. First, it holds that the conflict between employer and employed, or (again in older parlance) capital and labor, is built into our present economic and social system. The book is a manual for engaging in that conflict, designed to give workers every advantage in doing so. This conflict is part of the system, and workers are forced to engage in it, whether they want to or not. Book or no, this conflict will go on until the system itself is changed.

Second, it is based on the premise that while class conflict goes on in all areas of society – from politics to culture to economics – it is sharpest in the workplace itself, where the two sides face each other directly. This doesn’t mean that social injustice is reduced simply to a list of workplace grievances. In fact, The Troublemaker’s Handbook deals with racism and discrimination against women and gays, oppression of workers in developing countries, environmental and health dangers, and the other ills of a globalized world.

But the authors see the workplace as an important area, often the crucial one, where these problems become manifest. It is in the workplace that struggle starts to defeat and overcome them. “The basic, underlying issue is power,” cautions LaBotz, “who has it, who wants it, and how it’s used.” He tries to make this palatable for workers who are sometimes, particularly in historically non-union workplaces, uncomfortable with the idea of conflict. He urges them to look at their environment without blinders: “Power is up for grabs; you can’t gain power without someone else losing it, and many people shy away from the conflict and unpleasantness that implies,” LaBotz emphasizes. He then quotes Hetty Rosenstein, president of CWA local 1037: “You can’t just empower yourself. You have to take it from management.”

A good lesson, not just in the workplace, but in class politics regardless of the arena. This is definitely not “win-win” pablum, the liberal cover for not trying to change things in any way that fundamentally threatens the powerful.

Stylistically, the book is organized in a very practical way for people looking for ideas about tactics and strategy. There are numerous chapters, covering some of the subjects most important to union activists. These are also some of the hottest subjects of debate in the current furor over the direction of the US labor movement.

In fact, one very effective way of drawing workers into that debate would be if the AFL-CIO handed out The Troublemaker’s Handbook to all its 10 million members. That would go a long way towards making unions the activist and participatory organizations everyone says they want them to be. With chapters advising workers how to run rank-and-file caucuses and slates for office against existing leaders, that’s not likely to happen. But given the state of many unions, that alone might make it a good recipe for change.

Organizing in non-union workplaces is not just a chapter heading, but a thread running through a number of contributions. Friedman opens the subject, and Aaron Brenner later engages in a cutting-edge tactical discussion in one of the book’s longest chapters. He tries to combine the best of two competing trends in current labor thinking about organizing drives. On one hand, he has good advice for unions doing the strategic planning that allows them to use their resources effectively. But Brenner also tells unions to research, not just the employer opposition, (usually the core of current union anti-corporate strategies), but the workforce too. Today’s best organizing efforts combine both.

The approach to organizing in The Troublemaker’s Handbook advocates that workers themselves play a central role. They’re not just the subjects of organizing campaigns, visited by organizers or mobilized in demonstrations, but the objects, people capable of making basic decisions over how and why their union gets organized. In this militant view, the end result isn’t just the collection of union cards or the holding of a union election, or even necessarily a union contract, but the construction of an organization based in the workplace, which workers use to win justice from their employers.

The chapter covers a range of tactical ideas, including community alliances, political action, overcoming the barriers placed by labor law, internal organizing, corporate campaigns, strikes, non-majority unions, “salting” non-union workplaces with pro-union workers, and others. And best of all, it does this by recounting the actual experience of real campaigns, giving an account of how these ideas play out in practice.

The following chapter on immigrant workers uses the same approach of describing some of the key immigrant-based organizing efforts of the last decade. Some are well known among immigrant labor activists, including the meatpacking campaign in Omaha, the asbestos workers in New York and New Jersey, and the multi-ethnic immigrant workers center in Los Angeles. The most important characteristic shared by these campaigns is that they embody alliances between unions willing to experiment with new ideas, and immigrant communities committed to long term fights to build workplace organization.

Here, however, the tight focus on the workplace excludes a necessary discussion of the broader impact of immigration law and policy in general. Today, the terrain for organizing among immigrant workers is about to change drastically, as immigration bills in Congress propose to initiate huge new guest worker programs. The book could use a discussion of the reasons why these programs will deal a body blow to the ability of immigrants to organize. Some of these bills are supported by unions, for reasons themselves an important subject for discussion. It is important for activists to determine which proposals truly advance immigrant rights, and which will reinforce the weapons, like employer sanctions, historically used to keep immigrant workers powerless.

Many chapters are directed mainly toward union activists. This reflects the history of LaborNotes, which cut its teeth in fights to reform the labor movement, especially through Teamsters for a Democratic Union. The basic strategy of building rank-and-file caucuses within unions gets substantial treatment.

Slaughter zeroes in on" lean production," privatization and outsourcing, treating them as the most important means used by large employers to weaken unions. Her summary is followed by accounts of successful experiences fighting these schemes at UPS, Rhode Island Hospital, the state of New Jersey, and General Electric. The section, which has some of the book’s funniest cartoons (labor-management cooperation always seems to draw the most inspired barbs from labor cartoonists), also makes one point that echoes throughout the book. There is no magic gimmick, no special contract language, that will protect workers and their union from future attacks by their employer. Only an effective organization in the workplace, supported by the workers who run it, stands a chance over the long haul.

This edition of the Troublemaker’s Handbook has a necessary treatment of both the labor press, and of electronic means of communicating and organizing. Andy Zipser, who edits the Newspaper Guild’s Guild Reporter, one of the labor’s most independent and forthright journals, has good advice for dealing with the media. And this edition has a chapter on net- and email-based communication for unions.
The book can be a useful guide both to workers in unorganized workplaces, and to community organizations trying to help workers deal with workplace issues. LaBotz writes a section on workers centers, a new community-based strategy for workplace organizing. In their most successful forms, these centers combine the diverse cultures of immigrants with techniques of popular education. In the process, they’ve been able to organize workers historically viewed by unions as virtually unorganizable. Similarly, chapters on community/worker alliances outline many varied experiences in what has become the bedrock strategy for successful coalitions to defend workers’ rights.

In the debate over the direction of the US labor movement, some of the most progressive voices have found common ground in a call for a stronger “culture of solidarity” among unions and workers. In part, this is an effort to break with the culture of business unionism – the idea that unions should just serve the interests of their own members, in the narrowest way possible. Business unionists, following the expulsion of the left from many unions during the McCarthyite purges of the late 1940s and early 1950s, held that unions should be run by a tiny elite, that rank-and-file participation was dangerous, and that members should be content to pay dues in exchange for economic benefits. This view saw any challenge to the existing political order as a danger to be suppressed.

The generation of Labor Notes activists cut their teeth organizing movements to overturn business unionism, and the leaders who enforced it. Today US labor is in flux. The pressure to scrap the old philosophy is stronger than ever, in part because it has proven so inadequate in defending the very existence of unions in the face of a bitter and vicious corporate and government offensive. But there is as yet no universal agreement on the alternative – a new direction that can rebuild a movement seriously in need of change.

The call for a culture of solidarity brings together a variety of ideas from leftwing and progressive unionists. They all see the need for unions to become more militant, defending the broad interests of workers in general, way beyond the labor movement’s dues-paying membership. And they all see the hope for change and survival coming, not from the top of the labor movement, but from its base. They want more active and committed members, in greater control of their unions, allied to a broad social movement extending throughout working-class communities.

The Troublemaker’s Handbook is one effort to help that process along. It is more than just a guide to action. It is a call to it. It carries the hope that millions of ordinary folks, with good ideas and a combative attitude, linking arms with those around them, can save the labor movement, and turn US politics around at the same time.

That’s one helluva vision.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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