Workers’ Power in Kentucky – Background text for the fourth meeting

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For our fourth meeting we will speak to comrades from New River Workers’ Power (NRWP), based in Kentucky. Below you can find some of the questions we will raise, an interview with NRWP after the strike at the retail store Target and a collection of articles dealing with the situation in the US hinterland.

https://nrworkerspower.wordpress.com

https://nrvstrike.wordpress.com

 

1. You guys are based not in the Bay Area or New York, but in Kentucky. Can you tell us a bit about New River: what kind of workplaces, industries? significance of unemployment or migrant labour? significance of the class history today?

2. How did you experience the run up to the elections and the whole debate about the ‘Trump hinterland’? How have things changed since Trump got in, in particular after all his recent u-turns?

3. What is your background as a group, under what political premises did you come together – and what are you doing?

4. On your blog you report about organising around retail work and in trailer parks – how is that going? What are the main difficulties?

5. What do you think about the general developments within the US (revolutionary) left, e.g. the debate within the IWW, the emergence of groups like Redneck Revolt, the increased focus on antifa activity? What are your proposals?


Interview with New River Workers’ Power – Libcom

New River Workers Power organised a five day strike at Target in Christiansburg, Virginia. Though the action itself was participated in by few workers, the strike successfully forced Target to starting an investigation into abusive manager Daniel Butler and so far has not resulted in repercussions for strikers.

Workers organised the strike without help from a trade union, launched a website and twitter account to publicise the strike, and were successfully able to get positive local news coverage as well as picket line visits from local unions and workplaces. We interview one of the strike organisers on the background to the strike and next steps.
This shows what committed organisers can do with no outside resources, and despite the organised workers being a minority of employees at a workplace.

libcom: We first heard about the strike when you tweeted at us with a link to the website on the eve of the first day. The website already had multiple testimonies from workers about abuse from Daniel Butler, as well as the demands of the strike. There was obviously a lot of planning and preparation involved, how did you come up with the plan? And is there anything you would do differently?

This started as a project by New River Workers Power, a collective of local workers who sought to build political power for the local working class through sites of struggle. A period of investigation was conducted to find the most potent worker issues in our area. Initially this process began through work around housing, specifically the local trailer parks where slumlords neglect the upkeep of infrastructure and the mobile homes stationed in them. It was through building contacts with workers at these sites that we first discovered the issue of the abusive Target manager Daniel Butler. As things continued to develop there was a risk of one of our contacts getting evicted for trying to organize other tenants. We didn’t have the resources at the time to help cover any sort of emergency like that so we thought it was best to postpone organizing on the housing front til the opportunity became better. It was also during this time that we discovered by chance other workers within our networks who also had experiences of abuse by this same manager. Where one door closed another opened. This is how we became involved in organizing workers to go on strike and demand this boss be fired. For several months we gathered testimonies, from both current and former workers. The idea was the more evidence we gathered the firmer our case would be for this guy’s termination. We actually could have gotten several more testimonies but for the sake of expediency we settled for the initial nine. The only thing I think that could have potentially helped us more is if we started sooner and had more time to develop more contacts at the store. This could have overcome any feelings of distrust by veteran workers towards us and our efforts, but then again we live in a climate where doing this type of action is frowned upon regardless of how justified it is nor how much support we garner.

libcom: The strike was organised by New River Workers Power. Are you a worker at Target yourself? If not how did you get in touch with the workers there?
Yes we are workers at this Target, some of us had worked at this store previously as seasonal workers. We also had contacts who are current and former workers that essentially held the door open for us in terms of who to reach out to and follow up with.
libcom: what are the demographics like of the Target workforce? How long have people been working there? Full time/part-time? Other jobs?

The age range is generally young, mostly 20 somethings, there are middle-aged workers there, it is a mostly white workforce, but we live in the Appalachian region, which has a higher proportion of white people than the national average. The gender composition seems to be majority women, maybe 60/40 women-to-men. There are surprisingly a lot of workers who are both young and have been working for Target for several years. Full-time positions tend to be reserved for the management, and are hard to come by for the non-management workforce. The management purposefully hires a lot of new workers to drive hours down and prevent people from qualifying for benefits. And it is common for part time workers to have this be one job out of two or three jobs.

libcom: How do you make decisions? How did you decide to strike?

NRWP is a small collective, we make decisions based on consensus, we are not large enough to justify voting, nor have there been any issues yet that caused us to hold a vote. The decision to strike seemed self-evident since any other means of struggling around this issue wouldn’t get any results or attention if we didnt strike.

libcom: Was there a conscious decision to organise without a traditional union (or the IWW) or was it necessitated by the work environment?

Yes, we never intended to organize through any union, some members are former wobblies, and used the information they picked up from that towards this effort. To have tried to organize this strike through a union would have dragged out the process longer than what we felt was necessary.

libcom: Has anyone involved been on strike before?

Some of us have been involved in workplace struggles and attempted strikes in the past, but to no avail.

libcom: How many Target workers were on strike vs. not? What has the relationship been like with non-striking workers in the store?

Initially we had hoped for a half dozen and it seemed like the crew who agreed to this were on board with the plan, but as we got closer to the strike that number dropped to only two workers out of fear of retaliation and loss of wages. Thankfully, the NLRB stipulates 1 person who is acting on the collective interests of others is enough to qualify as a strike, so while the numbers were not so impressive we still managed to pack a powerful punch in all this. There has been a range of responses to our efforts, from open support to active hostility. Some workers who we were not able to reach out to beforehand about our plan felt it was dishonest to call it a strike, others have told us they want a union, and have joined us during their breaks, while offering food and money donations to us while we were on strike. The rift between ourselves and other workers is going to be the biggest hurdle to overcome in our efforts at consolidating the workforce going forward.

libcom: Target announced within a couple of days of the strike action starting that they would start an investigation into Daniel Butler. Additionally, strikers have so far been able to return to work without victimisation. Do you have a plan for the investigation stalling or resulting in Daniel Butler staying in his job? Similarly what if workers are victimised for the strike action?

We are willing to go back on strike if he is not fired, right now we are reaching out to everyone we know of who has a testimony to share about what they have either experienced or witnessed him doing to workers. We are also working with another worker to file an EEOC charge against him and thankfully, because we tried to create as large of a united front as possible, we have been offered legal support if any worker chooses to pursue legal action against Butler or Target. We hope these looming threats over Target’s head will be enough to force them to meet the first demand. The same strategy will be followed if they decide to retaliate on any of the workers who went on strike or helped us along the way by providing testimonies. The strike and subsequent media attention should be enough to keep their actions in check against us. As of now we are having to wage a counter effort against the anti-union rhetoric management is feeding to the other workers, even though we are not a union, nor organizing for a union.

libcom: While there are a handful of successful solidarity networks, we usually hear about them in areas with an existing radical political scene (Seattle, Brighton) which provides a pool of people who could be relied on to turn up to a picket. Does Christiansburg have such a scene? If not, how did you put New River Workers Power together?

There is a small activist scene here and typically it doesn’t organize but rather engages in symbolic protest where there are no real stakes at play. We knew, as NRWP, that it was incumbent upon us to develop and lead worker struggles while calling upon the local activist scene as the rearguard to support our efforts. We thankfully have been able to mobilize them and help out, but this struggle took on a character of its own as we had multiple local and state level groups come out and rally to our cause, including the mainstream unions and Democrat politicians – which provided a certain mainstream credibility to our struggle. We know the limitations of reformists, and at a certain point in the developments of things will probably even be on opposing sides, but we believe in building as much unity as possible, even if only temporary, in order to win in the immediate sense. We may even win over some of these segments of people as a result of witnessing our struggles. We want to create internal divisions among their ranks and force them to choose the interests of workers or side against them. We think we have been successful in that thus far.

libcom: What are your plans for the future?

Our plans moving forward are to realize the second demand – we don’t expect Target to voluntarily recognize an independent workers committee, but will have to as a result of further concerted activity by workers on the job. Our task has been to prove we could do this and keep our jobs, show the other workers this and make them feel emboldened to take further action. Beyond Target we plan to hold regular worker’s rights events while returning to tenant organizing and encourage other workers to follow our lead. The goal is to build an independent workers power on the local level, not beholden to any reformist strategy or organization, while networking with other independent groups regionally and nationally to further these ends.


List of articles on the situation in the US hinterland

http://insurgentnotes.com/2016/11/dispatch-from-west-virginia/

https://anticapital0.wordpress.com/eight-years-since-2008-and-still-broke/

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-03-23/inside-alabama-s-auto-jobs-boom-cheap-wages-little-training-crushed-limbs?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosprorata

https://morecrows.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/unnecessariat/

https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/playing-chicken-discovering-a-diverse-working-class-in-trump-country/

https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/profiting-from-the-working-class-how-the-opioid-epidemic-echoes-the-mortgage-crisis/

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/30/west-virginia-religion-coal-trump-voters-doubt

https://thenewinquiry.com/hillbilly-ethnography/hillbilly-ethnography/

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/losing-west-virginia/

https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2017/05/22/is-class-really-forgotten-working-class-studies-association-2017-awards/

https://rs21.org.uk/2017/05/05/revolutionary-reflections-how-trump-took-the-midwest-conversations-with-a-worker-from-michigan/

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/15/us-culture-divide-ohio-new-york

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/12/opioids-crisis-men-overdoses-psychology

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