The perils of organizing a hot shop

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn tells the story of an organizing campaign he was involved with at a propane tank facility in 2014 in Clyde, New York.

For anyone who has been to an IWW 101 Workplace Organizer Training, you may recall the sage advice of your trainer, who warned you to watch out for “hot shops.” To avoid them at all costs, even. This is my hot shop story and I hope it acts as a warning to other wobblies about the potential hazards associated with hot shops.

What is a Hot Shop?

A hot shop is generally viewed as a workplace where the workers are already super agitated and already taking some form of collective action without first having built a committee, gathered all the contacts for their coworkers and inoculated each other on what the fight from the boss might look like once they go public with their organizing.

We come into contact with hot shops in different ways. Sometimes, a worker will reach out to someone they know in the IWW, or another union for that matter, while at other times a wobbly may catch wind of a hot shop and reach out to the workers there.

While I am not convinced that hot shops should be completely ignored by our union, I do believe that there is a right way to go about organizing at hot shops. However, it is important to take multiple things into consideration since there are so many variables that feed into our decision as wobblies to either pick up a hot shop and organize explicitly with the IWW, to offer some kind of guidance and maybe sign up a few workers into the union, or to just walk away completely.

The Background

As a wobbly, I have found it very difficult to say no to workers who ask for help. I don’t believe I ever have. In 2014, I was just one of a small handful of Wobblies in Utica, NY. Technically we were part of the Upstate NY branch but the branch meetings were held almost a two-hour drive away in Albany. Wobblies were scattered and isolated across the entire state.

We held a 101 training in Utica and actively recruited workers and organizers in the immigrant justice movement across the state to attend the training. A few activists from a solid immigrant justice organization in Syracuse called the Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY) came to the training and joined the IWW. They picked up some skills from the IWW (as well as from the Seattle Solidarity Network and the Focus on the Food Chain campaign in NYC) on how to develop escalating collective action campaigns around specific issues at workplaces, including farms.

We forged a close relationship with WCCNY and worked together on various campaigns. Their organizing brought them to dairy farms scattered across the state. All of the farm workers they encountered were immigrants and many of them worked seasonal jobs: hopping from one dairy farm to the next, or working in apple orchards during the picking season, and working other low-wage jobs at other times during the year.

Jose was one of the many Mexican migrant workers who came into contact with the WCCNY. He landed a job in the small rural town of Clyde, not too far from Rochester, at a very large company called DiSanto Jet-Gas, which fixed, painted, and filled propane tanks. He knew the conditions there were bad and applied to work there with the intent to organize.

The working conditions there were deplorable and oppressive, far worse than what Jose and many other workers had ever encountered in the dairy industry. Jose wanted to do something about the situation and reached out to the WCCNY. Rebecca, the lead organizer there who had been to the IWW 101 training and joined our union, in turn reached out to us. Jose desperately wanted to take action. So we met up.

Sweatshop Conditions

A handful of us — Rebecca, another organizer named Carly from the Worker Justice Center in Rochester who offered to help out, myself, and a couple other new wobblies and activists — took turns visiting the worksite. The company was way out in the country, about a two-hour drive from Utica. The first time we went there, we drove up a dirt road behind the business to find a cluster of trailers — essentially a worker camp run by the boss. We met the worker-organizer Jose there, and he gave us a tour.

The trailers were run down and falling apart. Some of the them were infested with cockroaches, fleas and bedbugs. The workers tried their best to keep things clean but the boss had done very little to tackle the problem. Windows were missing screens, there was no AC and there were no fans to battle the sweltering heat. There was no security as doors had no locks or were broken.

Jose introduced us to some other workers and we talked with all of them about organizing. My Spanish is pretty sparse: I can understand it a bit but speak very little of the language. Thankfully, the other organizers spoke Spanish fluently. Discussion soon turned to working conditions.

Jose painted a brutal picture of Jet-Gas. Workers often labored from 6:00am to 10:00pm, six days a week. It was the kind of workplace captured in the works of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck nearly a century ago, rife with injuries, speed-ups, and a lack of hope and dignity. Propane tanks of all sizes, from the kind you hook up to your grill to titanic industrial tanks the size of cars, were cleaned, painted, fixed, and filled in the factory. It was a dystopian industrial setting, a Taylorist nightmare — propane tanks whizzed by non-stop, dangling precariously from hooks on conveyor belts. The air was thick with the stench of propane. Injuries were common. The workers were underpaid, not given any training or safety equipment, had no job security, and were not allowed to have decent meals or long enough breaks. It was pretty clear that this place was a sweatshop.

The boss, we were told, lived in a beautiful mansion of a farmhouse complete with a colossal telescope so he could gaze at the stars while his workers struggled and suffered late into the night. The workers knew that at the crux of their oppression lay an imbalance of power. Jose was ready to fight and change all of this. We came up with a plan. We talked about the basics of organizing with Jose and a couple of his coworkers. We wrote a long list of grievances and picked some to organize actions around.

The Vision

I knew from the beginning that this was a hot shop, that the path to victory would be arduous at best. But workers were itching for action. However, all of us outside organizers lived far away, which left the workers pretty isolated. Realistically, we were many months off from setting up an IWW 101 workplace organizer training in Spanish for the workers. Also, the Upstate NY IWW branch was very disjointed in the sense that little organizing was going on, and meetings were held in Albany, which was well over three hours’ drive away from where these workers were. We could not give the institutional support necessary for a campaign to succeed.

Complicating matters was the timeline we were working with. It was August and many of the workers, including Jose, were planning on working the apple harvest in September. I wanted to encourage the workers to slow down and apply the brakes but things were moving fast. They wanted to take action and it was difficult for us outside organizers to say no.

Most of the jobs I have worked over the years have been temp jobs, and seasonal. I was able to form committees at different workplaces and get people on board with the IWW. Because I always went into a job knowing I would be there for just a few months or a year at most, I focused my energy on organizing collective action with my coworkers around specific demands on the shop floor. From that, I would sign up some workers into the IWW and give them the skills to organize elsewhere in the future. This was as true in the timber industry for me as it was as a janitor or working in fast food.

The workers at DiSanto Jet-Gas were in a more precarious position than I had ever experienced as a temporary worker, since they were also migrant workers — far from home and from family, and living in a predominantly white and conservative part of New York, where the viciousness of racism was all too real. More was at stake for them if they failed. Some were concerned about ICE or the authorities intervening if they caught wind of the organizing. Others were concerned that they might get blacklisted by the contractista — the temp agency that the boss at Jet-Gas, and countless other employers across Upstate NY, relied on to hire cheap labor.

It was a greater risk to organize but an even greater one not to: the workers increasingly realized that if they did not stand up and organize at this workplace, then the same conditions of exploitation would continue to exist there, and everywhere else they ended up working. Organization was what was needed to pave the way to a deeper emancipation.

To me, the most logical thing for these workers to do was build a committee. They could spread the idea of the IWW and organize across an industry and also across their social network of migrant workers. They could take collective action together around specific demands, and build up membership in the IWW in the process — all of which would happen with the knowledge that they would be working at a different farm or workplace in a matter of months.

This would of course draw on something that is unique to the IWW. Unlike mainstream unions like the SEIU, UFCW, etc., your membership in the IWW follows you across workplaces, industries and even across borders. We try to organize the worker rather than the workplace.

In more recent years, wobblies who were illegally fired from the IWW campaign at Ellen’s Stardust Diner took the skills they learned at that campaign to other restaurants they worked at, where they won demands through collective action with their coworkers. Wobblies are spreading across the industry, sharing their skills, winning improvements and building power. This is what we were hoping for in the dairy industry in New York, and it seemed like this sweatshop, although not in that industry, was a good place to start because many of the workers there would eventually work in the dairy industry.

We outside organizers made a point to take turns stopping by Jet-Gas a couple of times a week, especially on Sundays when they had the day off. This ended up becoming an immense amount of driving for the three of us who consistently went there.

In total there were perhaps forty workers. It was a mix of white, American-born workers, who lived locally, and Puerto Rican, Guatemalan and Mexican workers, who all came to work there from elsewhere in the state. Jose did his best to have one-on-one organizing conversations with his coworkers, and socially mapped out the workplace.

The divisions in the workplace were real and painful to watch. It was the opinion of many of the migrant workers that the white American workers lived lives very different from their own. (We also discovered that many of the white workers received higher wages than the other workers.) Because the workers we were in touch with had no social connection with the white workers, we were unable to reach them.

The Puerto Rican workers straddled the line between their white coworkers and the other migrant workers. Some tried to distance themselves from their Mexican and Guatemalan coworkers by telling the white workers that they, too, were US citizens, unlike the “others.” But the Puerto Rican workers were far away from their homeland and their families, and dealing with racism and grinding poverty in the US, just like their Mexican and Guatemalan coworkers.

We needed to reach out to the white workers and chip away at the divisions between the Puerto Rican, Mexican and Guatemalan workers to make this a collective action of all the workers. Forging solidarity between all the workers was turning out to be a monumental task. Was this possible to do in one or two months? These divisions and the inability to foster solidarity in practice would later unhinge the campaign.

The Hot Shop Heats Up

At one of the organizing meetings I was not able to attend, the workers wrote up their final list of demands. They planned to get as many of their coworkers as possible to sign on to the demands and have a collective march on the boss.

This is the letter the workers wrote:

Dear Jet-Gas, Di Santo owner:

We, workers of this company, have come together to respectfully request a discussion with you about the following issues related to our working conditions:

1. A system of better and higher wages with regular raises. This is very fundamental to be able to support our families and maintaining an excellent workforce.

2. Workplace health and safety. For example first aid kits and personal protective equipment like gloves, earplugs for safety and to protect our health.

3. Dignified housing because the reality is that we are living in inhumane conditions that affect our health and our motivation. There are bed bugs, cockroaches, mice and many other problems in the housing. After work we can’t rest due to the conditions of the housing.

4. We want a dignified place to eat like a dinning room or a specific area where we can eat our lunch and take breaks. Right now we have to eat in the middle of machinery with propane odor. The microwave doesn’t work well among other problems.

We believe that dialogue is important. We await a response by Friday, August 22, 2014. Thank you in advance.

Around this time, my fellow organizers from the WCCNY and the Worker Justice Center wanted to reach out to OSHA, the Department of Health and other government agencies to come in and do workplace and housing inspections. I knew that the workers had to build collective power on the shop floor first. I was concerned, if any of these agencies reached out to the boss, that the workers would be outed and the organizing would be scuttled prematurely.

This brings up an important question of strategy: what should IWW organizers do if and when we work with other organizations that might have a different approach to organizing? At least in this context, we should have agreed to a common strategy before we offered to help the workers at Jet-Gas. It is easy to make sense of all of this in hindsight, but at the time we were stretched thin and trying to make something — anything — stick in the limited time we had to organize there.

It also makes more sense to have some easily attainable demands (or even just one) to start off with — the lower hanging fruit — and build up collective action around that. With a win under their belt, the workers could have seen that collective action does in fact get the goods, and could have built their confidence toward taking more actions around bigger demands.

The boss responded to the letter by offering ear protection. But that was it. He was completely silent on everything else, leaving the workers feeling dismayed and confused. Over the next week, we had to do quite a bit of re-agitation to encourage the workers to take a different approach. The workers discussed having a short, fifteen minute paro (a work stoppage) to demand an increase in pay to $9.00/hr. I was not convinced that it would work, but the workers really wanted to push for that. However, in the heat of the moment one day, plans changed.

A big issue for most of the workers was lunch. They did not have a proper lunch room or breakroom and instead used smaller empty propane tanks on the factory floor for their makeshift cafeteria table. It always reeked of propane. It was dirty and dangerous. The other issue was that they always ate their food cold. There was no microwave or stove, so if they wanted to eat the traditional meals they prepared warm, they would have to walk back to the trailers. A thirty-minute lunch break was not enough time.

They had had enough of this, and on this day they all spontaneously walked off the job, went back to their trailers and heated up their lunches. Production came to a standstill. Their unplanned paro was successful that day in winning the immediate goal of eating warm food in a safe environment. The workers were elated but there was no clear strategy for what to do next, no specific demand, and no escalation plan.

Within a week, they struck again. What precipitated the second strike, in addition to the lunch situation, was the firing of one of the Puerto Rican workers, named Juan (for reasons unrelated to any of the collective actions). This second time, they refused to go back to work for the rest of the day.

And that’s where the trouble began. These paros seemed more like isolated incidents with no backup plans and no escalation. Tactics without a strategy are dangerous.

The Downfall

Juan was still committed to the fight and offered to help from the outside. But another worker named Steve, who had a reputation for being aggressive and threatening, started to unravel. He blamed Jose for Juan getting fired. He also had firearms that he and some of the other workers would use for target practice in the woods on their days off — a pastime that made Jose and others nervous. At a larger meeting where there were fifteen workers present (and also in one-on-one conversations I had with him), Steve voiced his belief that the best way to get workers on board with the union was through intimidation. I and others voiced our opposition to this but in reality, we didn’t know, and couldn’t control, what Steve did or said on his own time.

For reasons unknown to many of the workers, and unknown to us, Steve was called into the boss’s office midday for a meeting, walked outside the office, and left work with all of the other Puerto Rican workers, and some of the younger Guatemalan workers. Jose and the others got home after their shift late at night to discover that much of their food, money and cameras were stolen. He was convinced that the Steve was the culprit and wanted to file a police report. He was also concerned about his gun-owning coworker’s thinly veiled threats in the past.

It was one of those real-world issues that came crashing down on us idealistic wobblies. Many of the workers had had their hard-earned money and other items stolen and one worker legitimately feared for his safety. How would we handle a situation like that, especially when the police came into the mix?

Rebecca and I warned Jose about our concerns over contacting the police because we thought ICE would also be called in. We wobblies were opposed to talking to the police under any circumstances, but some of the immigrant justice activists had developed a rapport with the police across the state, to discourage them from cooperating with ICE. Rebecca was told by local supporters and activists that the sheriff of the county said he would not cooperate with ICE, but us wobblies were afraid that he would not keep his word. We shared our feelings on the police, including our belief that even if the sheriff had promised not to cooperate, somehow ICE would still get involved and someone would inevitably get deported. Realistically, we could not provide the protection or justice that Jose and his coworkers deserved.

Feeling like he had nowhere else to go for protection and safety, and wanting to continue the fight for dignity and better working conditions at the sweatshop, Jose filed a police report.

Steve and the other workers drove back to the worksite to get their paychecks. The police were waiting there for them. The police detained them and asked for documentation from everyone in Steve’s car. They found out that one of the Guatemalan workers in the car was undocumented and, as it turned out, was also only sixteen. He was detained by the police and handed over to ICE.

We were devastated when we heard about this. Thankfully, he was not deported and was soon released and allowed to live with his family in Florida. His uncle told Rebecca that he was concerned over his nephew hanging out with that group of coworkers and was relieved he was back with his family.

Steve was allowed to walk because he did not have any of the stolen items in his car. I have thought more than once that maybe the boss encouraged Steve to steal, or even was guilty of it himself. We’ll never know.

The organizing came crashing down in light of the firing, the thefts, and the arrest of the young worker. The apple harvest was picking up and dairy farms in the area were looking for laborers, so most of the workers, as they had originally intended anyway, left the sweatshop to work in the fields.

There had been momentum — two strikes, and a couple dozen workers introduced to the ideas of the IWW and solidarity unionism — but it had all come crashing down. There were some very minor improvements in living conditions and health and safety standards when different agencies came in for inspections. The Workers’ Center of Central New York had quite a bit of experience in filing complaints with government agencies to make improvements at different farms through their dairy worker campaign. The agencies did not always come through, but this time they did. Continued pressure was put on the county to come in and inspect the housing. They eventually did and they mandated the employer make a number of improvements. But the changes were only implemented after all of the workers involved with the organizing there had already left.

Jose continued to organize with the Workers’ Center in Syracuse but eventually drifted away from organizing altogether. Every so often, there is some discussion in the IWW about doing something in the dairy industry, but that has never really panned out. The bitter defeat at Jet-Gas made us realize the perils that can come with organizing a hot shop.

Lessons Learned

These are some of the most valuable lessons that came out of the attempt to organize at Jet-Gas:

1. Stick to the script!

I have heard wobbly organizers say this often. I have said it myself. The 101 training our union does is based off of real-world organizing over the years, both successes and failures. It’s important to not take any shortcuts to collective action. This often means taking things slow, applying the brakes, making sure that workers are having in-depth one-on-one organizing conversations, that all the workers are fully inoculated for the boss fight, that workers are joining the IWW, and that the committee accurately represents the demographics of the workplace. It also means that workers learn about the ideas and vision of the IWW, build on it and create something that is theirs. Action for action’s sake, and tactics without strategy are dangerous. Go slow, go slow, go slow! It takes time for workers to come up with their own strategy and create their own union with its own culture. In this case, there was too little time to do this the right, healthy way.

2. Go to a 101 training

This may seem obvious but these trainings are essential for organizing. I have seen campaigns fail in part because workers never went to a 101 training. Conversely, I have seen campaigns thrive and succeed and have heard wobblies from those campaigns say that they would never have won if they had not attended a training. In this case, the very first thing we should have done was a 101 training in Spanish, even if it meant waiting for months. This hot shop could have cooled off a little if we had two or three workers attend a 101 training and join the IWW.

3. Build relationships of trust on the shop floor

In hindsight, it was not sustainable for the workers there to rely so heavily on the those of us organizing from the outside. This is another reason why getting them to a 101 would have been important. Our union, unlike mainstream unions, is built of worker-organizers. It is fundamentally different when workers can build trust with an organizer who is also their coworker: they know in a very real way what the issues are, how to address them and will take the same risks as their coworkers. There were worker-organizers at this sweatshop but they did not yet develop the skills of being an IWW worker organizer. And there is a profound difference between the two. The other major flaw of course was that at times it seemed like the committee was mostly comprised of us outside organizers: myself, Rebecca, Carly, along with just a few of the workers there (Jose was pulling most of the weight, but there were at least two or three other workers who stepped up). We should have pushed more for other workers to step up and been active members of their own committee and be agents of their own change rather than relying so much on the three of us.

4. Be realistic about capacity

If there were a number of Wobblies who lived and worked in that town, there would have been a better outcome. But those of us with skills as organizers were driving one and a half or over two hours just to meet the workers. And we were all stretched thin to begin with in terms of availability and financial support to drive out there. Because the Upstate NY branch was very atomized at the time and geographically spread out, we did not have the resources to take on a fight like that. Today, the branch is more organized, growing (with branches forming in Rochester and Buffalo), and has a bigger organizing drive in the works that is being done right. We also have more financial resources, are more tightly woven into the broader fabric and structure of the union, and have given three 101 trainings across Upstate NY over the past few years. Perhaps things would have turned out differently in today’s context. We should have been a little more direct than we were at the outset about our capacity to help out. Also, our capacity would have looked radically different if, again, the workers had the skills, knowledge and capacity to lead their own organizing (rather than us “outsiders”). If we believe in the wobbly mantra “we are all leaders,” then we should have pushed harder to make that happen.

5. Be prepared for the worst-case scenario

The one thing we did not predict was the violent and threatening demeanor of one of the workers, having to deal with the police over thefts, and ICE being called by the police in connection to criminal charges. It took everyone by surprise, but if the workers had been better organized in a functioning workplace committee, Steve would have been less disruptive to the campaign, and perhaps things would have turned out differently. But perhaps not. There are no limitations to the kinds of surprises we may face as organizers. We need to try to think of all of them, but we also need to know that we cannot solve all of the problems that come up in our organizing, and be honest with ourselves and with workers about that.

6. The IWW is a union. Act like it!

We did this organizing solo. Things were moving so fast and we were so busy that we did not reach out within the broader IWW to the extent we should have for help. We should have kept in more regular contact with nearby branches, with experienced IWW organizers, and with all of the structures within our union that are already in place (like the Organizing Training Committee and Organizing Department Board) to help facilitate organizing, offer mutual aid and advice, and build the IWW. Even the best organizers with many years of experience still get stuck and, for various reasons, don’t ask others for advice and help when they really should. It’s ok to not have all of the answers. None of us do. And although we shared IWW literature and information in Spanish and had quite a few one-on-one conversations as well as larger meetings, nobody ever joined the IWW out of this campaign. It crashed and burned as quickly as it rose up.

Should we Abandon Hot Shops?

The frustration, surprises, brutality and downfall of this campaign still haunt me. However, the workers did feel a brief glimmer of hope when they took some collective action — that feeling, in that moment when nerves are about to snap, of courage and dignity when confronting a boss. The limitations of this campaign, however, made certain that these feelings were fleeting and did not translate to any long term gains.

The time frame we were working with was also simply too short. This raises the questions: Should we as the IWW abandon hot shops? Is there a right way or better way to address hot shops? What is the alternative?

I would not say we need to abandon them entirely, but we should think long and hard about what “winning” and building power could look like in a hot shop.

Perhaps the best thing we could have done at Jet-Gas would have been to be honest in the beginning and say that given the one- or two-month time frame we were working with, the chances were slim to build a lasting union there or even making any real gains. We should have instead encouraged the workers to focus on taking small-scale collective action over some more easily attainable improvements, get to a 101 training, and keep focused on the longer-term strategy of organizing in the industry that many of the workers worked in most of the year: in agriculture. It would have been better for the workers and those of us helping from the outside to take a deep breath and come to that decision together.

I’m a firm believer that workers can and should liberate themselves but they – we – need to make sure that we have those skills, that knowledge and the tools necessary for liberation. And that comes one very small step at time.

Many thanks to Rebecca Fuentes and Marianne Garneau for their invaluable insight for this article.