The Wobblies — another way forward for low-wage workers?

Picketer at Insomnia Cookies on September 12. (IWW Boston/Patrick O’Meara)

Picketer at Insomnia Cookies on September 12. (IWW Boston/Patrick O’Meara)

With next to no planning and little experience with labor law or direct action, all four workers on the late-night shift at the Insomnia Cookies store in Cambridge, Mass., walked off the job on August 18, declaring themselves on strike. Fed up with inadequate wages, long shifts without a break and no benefits, they timed the strike to begin with Insomnia’s midnight rush, causing maximum financial damage to the firm. As striking Insomnia worker Jonathan Peña put it, “We don’t have anything to lose.”

Insomnia Cookies has more than 30 branches nationwide. The chain specializes in delivering cookies and milk in areas with large college-student populations. Its busiest times are between midnight and 2:45 a.m., when students have returned from a night out and are willing to pay a premium for Insomnia’s treats to be delivered to their dorm rooms.

Peña and the other striking workers have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board and have charges pending with the Attorney General’s office. They are alleging compensation below minimum wage, shifts longer than eight hours with no federally-mandated hour-long break, expectations of working after clocking out and a myriad of other breaches of labor law. While Jonathan was working for Insomnia, a delivery biker, under tremendous pressure to do as many runs as possible, was hit by a car.

A baker at Insomnia makes $9 per hour and is expected to bake cookies, serve ice cream, take out the trash, work the cash register, clean the entire store and make bank deposits after closing. Night-shift workers are paid only until 3:30 a.m., even though they are required to make bank deposits after being clocked out. Peña spoke of once having to work past 5 a.m., despite only getting paid until 3:30. Delivery bikers earn only $5 per hour, plus 50 cents per delivery and tips. None of these workers are eligible for health care benefits.

The four striking workers are demanding the right to form a union without intimidation from management, a raise to $12 per hour and access to benefits, including health care.

Two things happened within hours of the initial strike and walk-out. First, all four workers were fired. Second, they decided to enlist the help of a labor union, the Boston branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, often known as the Wobblies.

The IWW, founded in 1905, is perhaps the most radical labor union in the United States. Its support for workplace democracy, direct action and its slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” have largely defined anarchist and socialist labor organizing in this country for the last century. Among the largest active branches in the United States, Boston’s Wobblies were chosen to host the 2013 IWW Organizing Summit. The union often engages in solidarity actions with non-unionized workers, making it an ideal partner for the Insomnia Cookies workers.

Soon, the Wobblies got to work providing support where they could. They organized a half-dozen pickets in front of the Insomnia Cookies store in the past month, distributed fliers in the Harvard Square area and reached out to various organizations in the Boston area that might be friendly to the strike. Two of the striking workers accepted the union’s offer for “organizer training,” receiving a crash course in labor action and workplace organizing. But the Wobblies have also made a priority of empowering the striking workers themselves, not co-opting and taking over their campaign from them.

According to IWW organizer Jason Freedman, “Whether it’s Insomnia Cookies, Starbucks, McDonald’s, wherever, workers should be paid decently, if not making their shops worker-run.”

The strike comes at a time when the Fight for 15 campaign in fast-food restaurants, organized in large part by the Service Employees International Union, is receiving national media attention. But in many respects the campaigns couldn’t be more different. The SEIU is a large bureaucracy with a top-down organizing style. Some in the labor movement refer to it with disdain as the quintessential “bosses’ union,” allowing the interests of management to come before those of the workers the union is supposed to represent. In spite of the widespread sympathy aroused by the fast-food walkouts, some observers are nervous about the SEIU’s role in the ongoing struggle of fast food workers to achieve a living wage.

“The SEIU and others like them are business unions with paid management and staff,” Jason Freedman said. “All they want is a win. The IWW is about empowering workers and showing true solidarity.”

Wobblies organize non-hierarchically in open meetings, and each local is an autonomous entity. There are no paid staffers or leadership in the union. When asked to describe the relationship with his newfound allies in the union, striking Insomnia worker Jonathan Peña said, “I really feel as though they are there to be my support.”

Wobbly organizers also spoke of escalating the campaign, keeping the pressure on Insomnia by expanding the strike to include more of the shops around the country. But they want to make sure that workers take the lead. In the month since the strike began in Cambridge, Insomnia has opened a second Boston-area shop on Boston University’s campus. The IWW responded by with a new round of picketing and outreach at the second location. Freedman’s face broke into a sly grin when asked about this development. “We have knowledge of the other store opening,” he said, “and we hope they choose to unionize with the IWW.”

The IWW’s approach is hardly without its limitations, however. Wobblies only became involved in the Insomnia Cookies struggle after being reached out to by one of the striking workers; if that worker hadn’t known about the IWW already, the union would never have become involved. At the Boston IWW’s organizing meetings for the Insomnia campaign, one finds a sea of white, male faces — a lack of diversity that tends not to be the case at an SEIU rally or meeting. Additionally, lacking the SEIU’s financial resources, it’s hard to see how this now-tiny labor union could have anywhere near the impact of the larger, more bureaucratic unions.

Through careful agitation, however, the IWW could help shape the future of the Fight for 15 campaign. A nationwide mobilization against Insomnia Cookies branches is certainly within the capacity of the union, which has waged struggles against much larger chains like Starbucks and Jimmy John’s in recent years. A successful, worker-led campaign against Insomnia could garner enough attention and prestige to compel unions like the SEIU to be more transparent and democratic in its struggle against multinational chains with millions of employees.

The Fight for 15 campaign is one of the most encouraging developments in the U.S. labor movement in recent years. If the IWW is able to contribute to this effort in a real way — infusing it with concepts like workplace democracy, worker self-management and direct action — the winners will be low-wage workers everywhere.

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