The Industrial Workers of the World is called “The One Big Union” by its members and with good reason. The IWW organizes workers across all job sites and industries, unlike most other unions. Organizer trainers in the IWW often refer to solidarity unionism as the method in which workers on the job seize power and secure workplace improvements. Solidarity unionism is referred to in the External Organizer Manual as the “IWW’s unique organizing model” in its introduction. Solidarity unionism refers to the act of two or more workers directly seizing power in the workplace to improve their conditions, as opposed to the business union model of signing as many cards as possible to initiate a National Labor Relations Board election, hereafter referred to as an NLRB election. The IWW does have thirty-three public, officially recognized unions, but the vast majority of our workplace organizing happens outside of the established NLRB election-to-union-recognition pipeline. Many IWW campaigns never go public and are not known to their employers, but are still able to win demands such as higher wages and sick leave.
In this series, we will speak with members from a variety of unions nationwide, including the IWW. The goal is to inform workers of the pros and cons associated with both business union and solidarity union models. We will explore the different dues models of these unions and the hierarchical structure that emulates the power imbalance of the workplace, and how the IWW seeks to topple this hierarchy by directly involving workers in organizing decisions. We will find out the costs associated with business unions and what is given up in the process of going public. We will also see the ramifications of relying on the law to protect workers and how the courts have undermined these laws in recent years.
One such court decision, Janus v. AFSCME, has had a major effect on recruitment for municipal unions. For those unaware, on June 18, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that requiring that public sector non-members pay union fees is a violation of the First Amendment. New members and current members of municipal unions had the option for the first time in decades to choose whether to join or not join their union, and union dues stopped being paid by non-members.
John Pierce is a member of AFSCME and works in local government. He has worked there for nearly eight years and had a lot to say on how he feels his union works for him, so he doesn’t have to. His effort to bring other people into the union after Janus has borne some fruit and he plans on attempting to convince more non-members to join. Interestingly enough, Pierce mentioned that an ideal union in his words would include someone “who understands where the levers of power [are] and where pressure can be exerted within the system to get results,” which is part of the “Understanding Your Workplace” section of the IWW’s Organizer Training 101. Conversely, he acknowledged that he is a “worker ant” and plays little role in leadership decisions at work or in the union. Pierce does not attend union meetings, but a union steward does keep him apprised of what is going on. The AFSCME local union negotiated full salary transparency and workers all make the same amount of money based entirely on seniority. It also was able to secure 13 weeks of fully-paid time off for workers during the pandemic, which Pierce feels is one of its largest successes.
Industrial Worker: How are you today, John?
John Pierce: Doing all right. How about yourself? Let me just say yes, I am a member of AFSCME but I don’t speak for them in any official capacity.
IW: Awesome. Yeah, of course. So that was actually my first question. What union are or were you a member of? So we got that covered. For how long?
Pierce: Right. Yeah. AFSCME [for] seven and a half years.
IW: Wow, that’s a long time.
Pierce: It has been. Let’s see. Yeah, I’ve got my ‘20 to ’21 membership card. I think maybe they should send me a new one. But it does say “member in good standing.”
IW: Awesome. And how much does it cost to be a member?
Pierce: It is taken every paycheck out of the gross. I honestly don’t remember. That’s a detailed question. I probably should have looked [it] up, just a sec. I’ll see if I can find it.
IW: We can always revisit that.
IW: So that’s for people who don’t know, when it’s taken out of your paycheck, that’s something known as dues checkoff for when the employer withholds it from your paycheck. And I’ve heard a lot of people don’t realize how much it is. And how did you end up joining AFSCME?
Pierce: I’d been looking for a gig. I was working for a publisher that paid extremely little. And was just throwing resumes out, pretty much everywhere I could think of. And when I got the job working for the county government, it was just part of that, that it was AFSCME. I don’t know, it’s not a shop necessarily, but yeah, it was an AFSCME workplace. So I joined the union when I got the job.
IW: Okay. Yeah, and also for folks who don’t know there was recently that Supreme Court decision that struck this down where if you joined certain municipal jobs, like when you were hired, they would automatically enroll you in the union and you didn’t have a choice. I believe it was just a couple years ago, if you’ve been working there for seven years, that’s why you were just automatically enrolled.
Pierce: I was auto. Yes, there were some newer hires that did not necessarily join the union. And I remember talking one of them into it after the Covid pandemic shutdown, where I basically said, “You know, AFSCME just got you a 13 weeks snow day where your benefits didn’t get cut and you never missed a paycheck. I think it would be a good idea to join.” And eventually, they agreed. They didn’t sign up instantly after that, but pretty soon.
IW: Yeah. How did it make you feel that newer employees weren’t joining the union?
Pierce: You know, mildly resentful that they were still getting the same benefits without paying the dues, but it’s another one of those things where it’s the thin end of the wedge. There’s a lot of extremely rich people and extremely powerful people that would love it if nobody could ever join a union. Having it set up where it was voluntary just seemed sort of like the first step in cutting that apart completely. So mild resentment but much more towards the people who, you know, lobbied for 20 years to get the law passed rather than the people who under that law could or could choose to join or not join the union.
IW: It sounds like you succeeded in getting him to join. What do you think exactly convinced him? Was it the pandemic and the protections?
Pierce: Exactly. [It] was the pandemic before that this person really didn’t consider. You know, you hear jokes about unions all over the place. The Simpsons did them a ton. You know, the little raggedy Dickensian street urchin, who warns the boss that someday, the unions will rise up. And then he says something like, “Then we’ll get greedy and lazy and other industries will eat us alive.” And, you know, yes. Potentially true in both cases. But you don’t see a lot of pro-union anything around in, just general American pop culture. So, until there was that kind of direct benefit, I’m not sure that you could ever distinguish your own situation from what you were expecting it to be.
IW: Yeah, that makes sense. We in the IWW love The Simpsons, by the way. A lot of people are always sharing those memes and stuff. Do you think The Simpsons kind of had a pro-union undertone?
Pierce: They’ve had them at some point. I mean, there’s no way Homer keeps his job–what are they, in season 35 now–without some kind of union protection. But I think it’s that they take shots at every institution. I mean, the family’s religion, capitalism, labor, entertainment. They take shots at literally everything, so taking shots at unions as well.
Pierce: You know, I might feel a little left out. Yeah, it’s not like Mr. Burns is a good portrait of capital.
IW: Yeah, it’s not like that’s exactly flattering to bosses.
Pierce: Yes. Yes, indeed.
IW: All right, going back to AFSCME, do you feel represented by them? Like do you feel like you’re a part of the union besides just paying the dues?
Pierce: Yes, there was a representative on our floor that would pass news out and get people’s opinions, pretty much on a weekly basis. You know, anytime there was something that we needed to know or anything that the Union wanted to know from us, we did hear about it. It’s not just like it’s this faceless monolith off in the distance. That is the reason we got a good paycheck during the pandemic.
IW: Yeah. How are decisions made at work?
Pierce: I’m very much a worker ant there. I’m not a policy setter. So it does feel very top-down there. But I also don’t really have any [experience], you know? My degree is not in public policy or social work. It’s not in labor management. I guess you call it an MBA. So for what I’m doing, I’m not sure that I would be the right person to try and steward it and having somebody who knows better about it than me taking the wheel is probably a better idea than me doing it.
Pierce: Oh, and I did look it up, the dues are $44.15 per paycheck.
IW: All right. Yeah, so it sounds like you feel like you’re getting the bang for your buck if you will.
Pierce: Yeah, it works out to about $1150.00 a year if my incredibly shaky math can be trusted.
IW: So, what’s the leadership structure of the union? Like if there is one?
Pierce: Oh yeah. Now that’s kind of embarrassing. I mean I know that there is a union rep at work but I don’t really know who’s above them. I’ve never been to the big public meeting. So I’d have to say, you know, talking about a faceless monolith off in the distance. Yes, something like that.
IW: That was actually related to my next question. I was wondering if you’ve attended any union meetings and if so, how it went?
Pierce: Afraid not there. They’re usually on a weekday after work. I don’t know if that depresses or brings up turnout, but I know I’ve never been able to make it when they send the announcements out, and then basically for the last two-and-a-half, three years, I don’t feel safe going to a big indoor room with a bunch of people. So yeah.
Pierce: Now, at least I have a really good reason. You know, I haven’t been to see any live music in several years. If I go to the movies, it’s on a Sunday morning at the smallest theater near me. It’s just a safety concern. I haven’t gone to any of the big union general meetings. But I haven’t done a heck of a lot of other stuff too.
IW: Okay. Yeah. And I was wondering about that other stuff. Like if you’ve been involved in any workplace organizing actions such as a strike or petition or something that we call “a march on the boss?”
Pierce: I’m afraid “oh-for-three” on all of those. Just individually talking to people about you know, whether or not they should join the union. And you know, it was successful at least once. That reminds me, there’s a couple newer hires that maybe I should discreetly talk to.
IW: For sure. Yeah I mean it sounds like you were successful once at having one of those, I mean we call it an organizing conversation but it’s more like an enrollment conversation, like convincing people and asking them why they haven’t joined.
Pierce: I mean you already have the benefits. You might as well kick in for them so that other people can get them too.
IW: For sure. And what does an ideal union look like to you? This is a bit more open-ended.
Pierce: I guess the joke answer would be like a really underhanded person on my side because the bosses have so many. Somebody who understands where the levers of power [are] and where pressure can be exerted within the system to get results. And of course, to protect people from unfair retaliation from work. Pay, workplace problems, or unsafe conditions in the workplace.
IW: Do you think the union has done a good job protecting people from retaliation and workplace problems or unsafe conditions?
Pierce: I’m trying to think. I mean other than yes, we got a 13-week lockdown where nobody was expected to come in during the pandemic. That’s the big one. Looking back there have been attempts to give people–I don’t even know what you would call it–but we’d had a staff training for what to do if there was a mass shooting incident. So at least there’s the attempt to try and address the situation because this is America and sooner or later, you know, somebody–some jerk with a gun may or may or may not walk in. But there’s no real way to predict. It is just whenever that time and place [that] their number comes up, that’s when it is. And I’m not sure how much the advice is going to work or be of any use, but they did try.
IW: So that was something the union negotiated, was active shooter training?
Pierce: I’m not sure if it was specifically from the union, but it is something that was done as part of the union gig.
IW: That sounds terrifying. What did the training really entail? How can you prepare for something like that?
Pierce: Well, reading between the lines you really can’t. But if it does happen, I think the only really valuable thing of it would be that you’d already sort of been through it and thought about it. So with luck, you wouldn’t freeze, you would run away.
IW: Do you feel safe at work?
Pierce: Genuinely yes. it’s a public building.
IW: Well, that’s good.
Pierce: The public is allowed into it. Now, they hadn’t been for several months when we had come back. But there is security out front. There are lockable doors and you need key access to get into certain spots. So yeah if I had to run away there are some places I could run away to.
IW: And is everybody where you work in the union?
Pierce: I don’t honestly know but I would guess 75% or more. We have had a wave of retirements and people leaving for other positions. And I’m not certain about the people who have come in.
IW: Is every single position there unionized?
Pierce: Some of these supervisors are not if I remember, right? But every time I’ve seen a job posting it has listed which union the person would belong to because there are different ones [and] different, I guess subsections depending on what the duties are.
IW: Okay. Is there anything else that you feel we haven’t covered today that you might want to bring up?
Pierce: One of the things I really did like is that there are salary tables and they are available to the employees to look at. If you’re in this tier and you’ve been there that many years, you’re making this much money and that’s the same for everyone. There’s nothing about how, “Oh, don’t talk about how much you’re being paid. Somebody else might be making more.” And to kind of divide people that way. If you’ve been there for as many years as you’ve been, you get this amount of money and same thing with the paid time off accrual. If you’ve been here this amount of time you’re on that schedule, if you’ve been here longer you’re on this schedule. So it does reward seniority but it doesn’t punish the newer people as far as I could tell. We do get our birthday off. That was negotiated by AFSCME. So you do not have to come in on your birthday.
IW: That’s really nice. That kind of transparency. Sounds like it’s really important too. I mean it prevents discrimination because everybody is on the same table.
Pierce: Right? Right? If there’s somebody who doesn’t necessarily look like you, they’re still making the same amount. If they’ve been here the same time, they’re in the same pay grade. And I think that’s genuinely one of the better things that AFSCME has going [for it]. There is just the salary transparency.
IW: For sure, that makes a lot of sense. I don’t have any other questions for you, unless there was something else you wanted to cover, but thank you so much for meeting with me today.
Pierce: Oh certainly. It was my pleasure.