“Push for gains, not recognition”: The IWW Campaign at MiniMart

In 1996, when there was little organizing happening in the IWW, workers at a MiniMart in Seattle filed for an election with the IWW. Marianne Garneau interviews Jessica S, one of the committee members.

Tell me about the campaign in a nutshell.

It’s been 22 years so my memory is a little fuzzy, but a bunch of us were working at a MiniMart, and we were really dissatisfied. A couple of us were parents, and we wanted the owners to look into the possibility of health care. We also wanted raises, and a little more say in our schedule – the owner didn’t like people working together if he thought they were too good friends, so people couldn’t cover shifts, making schedule changes really difficult.

So we just had a few things we wanted to talk to him about. And one of the people who worked there, John, was familiar with the IWW and industrial unionism. He and I were close at the time. We talked about it a bit, outside of the workplace – maybe we should try to organize a union?

We held a potluck – the MiniMart is right by a pretty large park in West Seattle – to discuss the option [with our coworkers] outside of work, and we got a really good response.

We didn’t know a lot so we ran headlong into an organizing campaign – looking back, I would have done things differently – and presented the manager and the owners with our intent to unionize and to have an NLRB election. And went from there.

We rushed things. It was late summer when we had the potluck, and I think we were out on strike by sometime in September. It went from “let’s organize a union” to “we’re going on strike now” pretty quickly.

We went out on Unfair Labor Practices. I don’t remember the specific list, but we racked up 11 or 12 of them.

The strategy was: if we went out on ULP strike, we were guaranteed to keep our jobs through the organizing effort. Whereas if you go on strike for financial reasons, they can permanently replace you. So we got really good at documenting unfair labor practices.

We went on strike for a short period of time, and I don’t remember why we went back. I think a few people were just like, “I can’t be out for this long.” And we didn’t do that properly: we just showed up to our regular shifts. But they let us back.

  • The long strike

It was about a week later, what prompted the long strike, which lasted about four or five months. One of our workers had a history of migraine headaches, and a couple of other health problems. About once a month, she would get one bad enough that it would put her out of work a couple of days. She got one after we came back from the first strike, and the manager demanded she release all of her medical records for past two years — not just relating to her migraines, but all of her medical records for the past two years — or else they were going to fire her for too many call-outs.

She wasn’t going to do that, because she had other health problems that were none of the employer’s business that she didn’t want to release to him.

We went back out on strike prior to her next shift, to prevent her from losing her job, with the intent to stay out until the election.

  • Election

The election came a few weeks after that. If I remember correctly, it was tied, but we and the employer each contested two of the other party’s votes. They ended up firing the woman [with the health issues] when we went on strike, so they contested her vote. We actually listed that as one of the unfair labor practices, because we were on strike at the time that they fired her for not showing up to her shift, so they essentially fired her for being on strike. So they were contesting her vote, and one other vote, because that gentleman had another job, so they claimed that he must have quit, because they didn’t see him very often on the picket line.

We were contesting two of their votes because they had allowed two managers to vote.

Nobody budged. The NLRB hearing date was way in the future.

  • Settlement

The owner, around January or February, decided that he would rather sell the business than continue through this process. He got an offer for it, and it was contingent on making the labor situation go away. So we were approached: basically, if we would drop the strike, stop the labor dispute, and quietly go away, the three of us that were still actively on strike (it was a small shop – there were only five of us on strike in the beginning) could take this sum of money.

We came back that we wanted a sum of money for the fourth person as well — the gal that they fired regarding the health issues (the fifth person had moved on). Her firing was one of our biggest points of contention, and unless they acknowledged her as part of the group, we weren’t going anywhere. So they finally did include her, and that’s pretty much how it ended: they sold the business, and we each pocketed a few hundred dollars.

Why did you decide to take a settlement?

We’d been on strike for close to 5 months, and it was cold [laughs]. Two of the four of us had children, and had moved on, working other jobs because they couldn’t afford to be unemployed for so long.

And when we discussed it with our lawyer, and amongst ourselves… it was a low-paying job. The court date wasn’t even scheduled for another month or two. With the votes that were in contention, it looked like it probably wasn’t going to go our way.

Our hearts weren’t really in it anymore, and it was just the length of time, compared to how small of a group of people we were — we felt that moving on and taking money would in some ways be a victory, because the owners gave up the entire shop. We saw settling as a better victory than we were likely to get if we continued to push it however many more months until we actually got our election hearing.

I’m curious what the IWW was like back then, and what support you got from it.

The branch at the time was a lot of folks who had an academic interest in the IWW, and the industrial unionism of the early 1900s and what it stood for, but didn’t have a lot of organizing interest.

Quite a few of the members left the branch – they weren’t really interested in a modern-day organizing campaign. They quit showing up to IWW meetings when we came in. When we brought in the people we were organizing with, and then other people as we started picking up and doing more organizing and outreach, the meetings became more about action, and current campaigns, and the folks who had been in the IWW lost interest. Because the focus before that was a more of a historical outlook: how can we commemorate this event, are we going to have a presence at this political rally, and that sort of thing. It was a lot of talk, not a lot of action, and we changed the whole dynamic. As far as I know, we were the first IWW organizing drive in the area since the 70s.

The branch grew again after that, with more of an organizing focus. I only stuck around two more years, and then I drifted away again. 

  • Community support

We got a lot of support from the local community. That’s something we did really well. We didn’t have a ton of support from within the IWW itself. Like I said, a few people left, but even at its biggest, the branch was only 10-15 people. We had support from one of the Teamsters locals, local political organizations, one of the socialist organizations.

This went on the same year as 5th Avenue musicians’ strike – a few of them walked our picket line and we in turn walked their picket line. That is something I think we did well: we networked with other labor groups, and other unions in the area and showed up to their events and activities, and in turn they supported us. The networking we did was really good and strong and that helped us out a lot.

What would you have done differently, in hindsight?

  • Slow down and build

The first thing I would have done… Even though we had a lawyer to protect us, and to make sure everything we were doing was legal – that was great – I would have taken more time. We were really in a rush: let’s do this, let’s move fast, we’ve got enough people for an election, let’s go now. I would have sat back and taken a little more time and strengthened the organizing base, maybe worked on some of those fence-sitters that ended up going not our direction because they didn’t like how fast it was moving – it made them nervous. We actually had one guy who was part of it with us and then switched, because he didn’t feel we were listening to his concerns enough. I would have slowed that down a little bit.

Like I said we went from “let’s organize a union” to out on strike in a month. I think we should have laid more groundwork and taken more time to feel things out. And I think that was a combination of our excitement — we had more support, initially, then we thought we would — and our youth. I was 19, and the guy who spearheaded it, John, was 26. Our over-eagerness of “We’re making things happen! We’re getting things done!” might have led to us not being as well-prepared as we could have been if we had taken a little more time and made sure had a solid base to start from.

  • Be less rash

I think we should have been a little bit less rash: I probably wouldn’t have gone out on strike as quickly. I would have tried to do more stuff internally.

  • Elections favor AFL-CIO unions

I know the IWW has changed in part because of the Borders campaign in Philly, which is the more well-known IWW organizing drive from the 90s. Some of the stuff we learned as a union back then was: elections aren’t going to go in a radical union’s favor. Elections are structured for more AFL-CIO kind of unions, more trade unionism where you’ve got a paid union organizer to devote all this effort. Elections really favor that kind of structure.

  • Push for gains, not recognition

If I had to do all this over again, I would go more with how the IWW prefers to do things now, which is: less worry about an election, and more focus about getting the gains you want in the workplace, whether the union’s officially recognized or not. Having all of the knowledge now, looking back — we wanted a few more cents an hour, more say over scheduling, we wanted them even just look into what it would cost to get us health care, just to get the group discount, even if we had to pay a bulk of it, not even asking the employer to pay the premiums – those were the biggest things we wanted, and I feel like, looking back, if we hadn’t been so election-focused, so “give us our legitimacy”-focused, we might have actually been able to gain those things, if we had just stuck together with that same solidarity, but pushed for those gains instead of pushing for recognition.