“Labor law is a shield, but direct action is a sword…”

Nathan Cloughby Nathan Clough, University of Minnesota Duluth

So said an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer in response to a question I asked about the solidarity unionism model employed by the IWW.  We were discussing the upcoming hearings before a National Labor Relations Board judge on the firing of six Jimmy John’s fast food employees last March who were engaged in union organizing activities.

The NLRB has already issued an opinion that the firings were illegal, but the company is fighting the decision, a process that might put off any legal consequences for years.  At the core of this dispute is a novel attempt by IWW organizers to build the country’s first fast food worker’s union (see my previous post for some background on this).

The IWW hold a proud place in the annals of class struggle as a radical, democratic, and effective organization.  They also have a significant history of oppression by capitalist institutions such as the United States government.  For example, the IWW’s preferred tactics for advancing working class power – industry-wide organization, general strikes, workplace occupations, and organizing the unemployed – were all curtailed, frustrated, and made illegal through the formalization of American labor law (Cockburn 2004).  Indeed, you might say that American labor law, and the labor movement that emerged out of this legal milieu, were constructed precisely to crush movements like the IWW and to inculcate organized labor into the reproduction of the capitalist system, thereby redirecting anti-capitalist struggle into contract negotiations.  That system, however, is in crisis and the mainstream unions are under pressure, due in part to capitalist assaults, and in part to their own failure to maintain labor as a social movement.

It is precisely this crisis that reveals the relative novelty of the IWW organizing model.  IWW attempts to unionize young, precariously-employed people in the service sector to challenge the cultural position of labor in America.  Whereas the labor movement is often portrayed as the purview of either middle-aged blue collar laborers, or middle-aged, middle-class professionals such as teachers, the Jimmy John’s and Starbuck’s IWW unions are unabashedly young, hip, and cool.  As the progressive magazine In These Times pointed out in a recent article, Jimmy John’s uses the hip affect of its delivery workers to promote its sales.  For example, a promotional website for one Jimmy John’s in Minneapolis proclaims its workers to be “knights in hipster armor…[who pedal] their mighty bicycle steeds through the University of Minnesota neighborhoods in rain, sleet, snow, or Armageddon so that you may have your sandwich satisfaction” (Dinkytown 2012).  Starbucks, too, relies on the friendly, young, and relatively cool identities of its workers for the cultivation of its “third place” aesthetic (Starbucks 2012).  These representations are part and parcel of the commodification of the affect of service sector workers that is increasingly typical of late-neoliberalism.

While geographers have contributed prolifically to theorizations of neoliberalism, they have paid relatively little attention to how neoliberalization has contributed new openings for working class struggle, preferring instead to focus on how neoliberalism has functioned as a capitalist class assault on the Welfare State (see, for example, Harvey 2007, Brenner and Theodore 2003, and many, many more).  Despite calls for a focus on contestations to neoliberalism (Leitner et al. 2006), or non-capitalist alternatives (Gibson-Graham 2006), such studies have rarely examined the connection between new radical working class struggles and the structures of contemporary exploitation.  I think that the IWW offers a particularly exciting site for this form of inquiry.

In particular, I think an argument can be made that ties the shifting forms of capital accumulation through affective commodification to new forms of working class rebellion.  The Italian Autonomous Marxists have contributed some interesting and optimistic concepts to this project.  For example, the concept of the social factory seems particularly important for examining new forms of workers’ struggle.  The social factory refers to the post-Fordist political economy in which capitalist relations have colonized much of life outside the factory (see for example Gill and Pratt 2009), turning formerly non-capitalist relations, such as the relation between employee affect and corporate profits, into a fully capitalist relation.  Relying theoretically on an extension of Marx’s writings on real subsumption and his theory on machines, Autonomist radicals argued that such an extension did not imply the demise of class struggle, as theories of new social movements, post-modernism, and some forms of post-structuralism might have it, but rather the proliferation of potential sites of class struggle across the social sphere (see Thoburne 2003: chapter 4 for a great introduction to this line of thought).

What I think this implies is that the subsumption of hipster affect into capitalist strategies of accumulation places these affects as a site of real, possibly revolutionary, class struggle.  In other words, because capital relies increasingly on the creation or subsumption of ‘cool’, cool becomes a category that is directly politicized as an aspect of class domination.  To put it in even more Marxist terms, baristas and sandwich delivery workers now confront their own social identity as both a machine for their exploitation and an actual instrument of class liberation.  As New York Magazine put it in an article about the Starbucks organizing campaign: “Baristas of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your company-mandated cheerfulness” (New York Magazine 2005).  These companies have made ‘cool’ central to their accumulation strategies, now their cool employees are turning that affect into a powerful instrument for the revitalization of the labor movement.  This holds significant potential, I think, for the future of labor struggles in the US because it holds out the exciting possibility of tying young people and the tertiary and creative sectors much more tightly into a social struggle that has been historically hindered by archaic cultural class-representations of workers.

I think the most exciting aspect of this interpretation is that it is a materially-based rather than imaginative strategy.  That is to say, we don’t have to make capital reliant on our affect before we can crush it, it has already imbricated itself into our affects of its own accord, all we have to do now is to twist the knife.  As the IWW organizer I was talking to put it: “It’s young people who are working [at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s], so it’s young people who are affected by bad conditions and it’s young people who are organizing these jobs, unions are already cool.”  I would add to his statement that it is young people who are bearing a disproportionate burden of the current crisis and who are increasingly relegated to service sector labor. They also, then, hold the hope for future struggles that can build on, and build past, the class compromises of the last century.  In my next post I will explore this potential further through an examination of the scalar politics of IWW campaigns, and what these scales of organizing imply for contemporary struggles.


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Cockburn A (2004) How many Democrats voted for Taft-Hartley? Counterpunch 6 September http://www.counterpunch.org/2004/09/06/how-many-democrats-voted-for-taft-hartley/ (last accessed 13 February 2012)

Dinkytown (2012) Jimmy John’s, Dinkytown. http://www.dinkytownminneapolis.com/restaurants-and-bars/jimmy-johns/ (last accessed 13 February 2012)

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