Building a new labor movement in the shell of the old…: The IWW campaigns to organize fast food workers

Nathan Cloughby Nathan Clough, University of Minnesota Duluth

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common […] Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’, we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system’. It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”
– Excerpt from the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World Union

As I write this brief entry the above words seem a far cry from contemporary labor politics. This year a new capitalist offensive against workers has been gaining momentum: in the United States collective bargaining rights of public employees are under threat, while hard-won relative prosperity for southern European workers is being bargained away in negotiations with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. In spite of these class offensives waged by the rich, America’s opinion of organized labor is dismal. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted at the height of the conflict in Wisconsin in March of 2011, America’s feeling of approval toward labor unions is near a historic low. After falling to a pathetic 41% favorability rating from 2007-2010, the struggles over public sector bargaining appear to have boosted labor in the opinion of the American public to a very bland 47% (Pew Research Center 2011).

Unions in the developed world have significant problems. In addition to the relative deindustrialization of union-friendly cities, the ideology of neoliberalism has deeply altered many workers’ relationship to their own labor (see for example Barry et al. 1996), encouraging an entrepreneurialism of the self that is often deeply at odds with the blue collar culture that is traditional to much of the Anglophone labor movement. Neoliberalism presents unionization as the utter opposite of the desirable, flexible, marketable subject. Unions are, I think, at risk of becoming entirely passé in the public mind. They are deeply uncool. In fact, when I introduced the topic of labor in an economic geography course one student of mine questioned in honest consternation “aren’t unions bad?”.

IWW charterIt is at this critical juncture, when working class power is at a low point in its decades-long cycle of decomposition, that new directions need to be sought. The geographic literature on the new Labor Geographies is helpful in this regard insofar as it cultivates a focus on both what the labor movement is actually doing and how organized labor could improve its effectivity (Herod 2003; Mitchell 2011). In hopes of contributing to this literature, and of drawing attention to an innovative struggle that I think holds some important lessons for both geographic studies of labor and the labor movement, I am writing a series of news blogs on the contemporary efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World to organize fast food workers at Jimmy John’s sandwich shops and Starbucks cafes, especially as these struggles are unfolding in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. These campaigns have both been underway for at least five years, in one capacity or another, and they have achieved some small notoriety due in part to their novelty – there are no other fast food unions in the United States – and due to the radicality of their organizing model. In addition, a November 2011 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board found that Jimmy John’s has engaged in flagrantly illegal union-busting activities (Jimmy John’s Workers Union 2011). This victory promises to give these campaigns new energy and new legal tools in their struggle for good jobs, and against capitalism.

Additionally, by organizing young, hip, educated workers who are experiencing a low degree of job mobility due to the depressed economy, the IWW campaign may hold some keys to repositioning the labor movement in the youthful American imagination. Minneapolis is a city that prides itself on its creative class of green, artsy, hipsters – a population cluster in the cold north that is often cited by Richard Florida as a center of the creative economy. The jobs at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s carry a certain social cachet among hip urban youth, whose aspirations of better-paying and more ‘grown-up’ work are increasingly frustrated. This particular context, of jobs that are socially desirable combined with the fact of low-wage drudgery might hold some promise for re-making the concept of unionization, or, in other words, for making unions cool.

In the coming weeks I will present a series of articles that examine these IWW campaigns and begin to parse the lessons from these struggles for labor geographies in particular, and radical geography more broadly.


Barry A, Osborne T and Rose N (1996) Foucault and Political Reason: Neo-Liberalism and the Rationalities of Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Herod A (2003) Workers, space, and labor geography. International Labor and Working Class History 64:112-138
Industrial Workers of the World (2011a) Preamble to the Constitution of the IWW. (last accessed 30 December 2011)
Jimmy John’s Workers Union (2011) In big union victory, NLRB finds in favor of six unlawfully fired union organizers Jimmy John’s. (last accessed 30 December 2011)
Mitchell D (2011) Labor’s geography: capital, violence, guest workers and the post-World War II landscape. Antipode 43(2): 563-595