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East Bay Solidarity Network: Successful First Action!

March 28, 2011

At 12:24pm today, after a sunny Berkeley bike ride, Mackenzie and I were the first ones to arrive at the designated decoy meet-up location, just down the block from the actual target.  We taped up a sign that read: HOUSE BOY SOLIDARITY.  Slowly, people began to trickle in.  Many knew each other through other political work, greeting each other with big smiles and hugs, and “long-time-no-see’s.”  By 12:50, everyone knew the plan, the choreography, and the goal.  The ten of us headed toward the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority house, one leading our chant on the bullhorn: AIN’T NO POWER LIKE THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE ‘CAUSE THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE DON’T STOP!!!

Thus began our first action as the East Bay Solidarity Network (EBSol).

William had been working and living at UC Berkeley’s Alpha Omicron Pi as a “house boy”: a common term used to refer to live-in cooks who help prepare meals for Cal sororities.  He was still receiving training, and had had no serious reprimands or complaints about his performance.  On the contrary, he often received a “Good work” and a fist pound from the other, senior cook at the end of the shift.  All that changed when they fired the dishwasher and made William and the others pick up the extra work. Without extra pay.

After weeks of working extra hours to cover the undone job, and clearly seeing how exploitative this was, William demanded that his manager hire another dishwasher.  They did not; but not long afterward, he was called in for another meeting.  He was told that he was being fired for unsanitary work practices (again, having never been seriously reprimanded or warned about any such failures), and that he had three days to move out of his lodgings in the basement of the sorority.

Until now, the sorority management had been dealing with one lone, vulnerable worker: easy to exploit, oppress, fire for causing trouble, illegally evict, and all that sort of typical thing.  But today, William wasn’t a lone worker.  He was a part of the solidarity network, and he was joined by his fellow members.

Together, we brought his earthly belongings up from the basement (where they had been packed up without his consent and stored in the boiler room, to make space for the new “house boy”) and, after a brief back-and-forth with his back-stabbing co-worker, took up our formation on the front staircase and passed each item, bucket-brigade-style, down the line.  (Wish I had pictures of the bucket brigade, but it’s hard to be photographer and participant at the same time!)  Meanwhile, Ryan played a militant march on his snare drum.  We had discipline, choreography, and musical flair, man. Doubtless we left an impression.

Now that the managers had been made distinctly aware of our collective presence, William delivered to them the official EBSol letter, specifying our reasonable demands of the sorority managers, and letting them know that if our demands are not met within 14 days, we, as a group, will take action against them.

When all his stuff was piled on the sidewalk, William took the bullhorn and told his whole story to an explicit crowd (our group, now 13 total with some late arrivals) and an implicit crowd (the sorority girls, peeping wide-eyed in bunches through the upper-floor windows; and the managers and staff on site).  A manager from a nearby sorority, an in-law of one of William’s former managers, came storming over and tried to shut him down — grabbed at his bullhorn, and threatened to call the cops on all of us for trespassing in a “private home.”  We pointed out that it was not only a home, but a workplace, and William kept shouting out the gory details of how they screwed him over.

With his passion, his technology, and the cheering response of the rest of us in the solidarity group, William (and we) easily drowned out the flustered and angry stand-in-boss, creating quite a spectacle for the women watching from the windows.  (Whom William was quick to remind that it’s the boss we’re fighting, not the sisters.)  For a while the managers even withheld William’s last check, trying to force us all to stay til the cops came in response to the bogus trespassing call, but soon enough they relented and handed over his payment.  We loaded his belongings into cars, and left happy.

There are a million reasons I’m excited about how today’s action went.  For one, it feels great to take up the case of a domestic worker, whose labor is so completely invisibilized and underpaid most of the time.  Second, enthusiasm in the group was really high, partly because everyone was in a fighting mood, partly because a lot of us are friends, and also because this was not a symbolic action: it had both the moral high ground and specific objectives to accomplish (dramatize the moveout with disciplined formations; deliver the demand letter promising more action to come).  Also, I think, we all felt inspired to see William stand up to his bosses (or their stand-ins), express his anger at being exploited, and be emboldened by the real mechanism of our group.  It made me feel, at least, that if I’m ever getting screwed by my landlord or a boss, and I don’t have a fighting union to help me, then I sure as hell want a solidarity network like this!  There’s a lot to be learned just by being there to help other people’s fights.

As with any tactic, this one had its inherent limitations; and there were moments of confusion and things we could have done better.  This week, the five of us who planned the action (William included) will get together to debrief and reflect on how to improve.  But overall, I think we really pulled off something fine today, and I think everyone who participated felt it was deeply worthwhile.  Now, the campaign has begun — more updates to come in 14 days….unless our victory comes sooner!

On a final note, speaking for my own self, there are a lot of messy, fruitful dhamma questions coming up for me as a result of this EBSol organizing.  Is there room for an adversarial organizing premise like that of a solidarity network — united against corrupt bosses and landlords — within the concept of nonviolent, kind, wise boddhisattva action?  I’ve never really heard anything like that, myself.  Usually Buddhist activists point to the universal lovingkindness of a Martin Luther King, who seemed to be able to embrace his adversaries even as he disobeyed their rules and laws.  SeaSol — The Seattle Solidarity Network, from whence our model comes — makes no such embrace across the class line.  Yet, their actions are nonviolent and strategic.  So to me, it seems there’s more overlap than not.  What’s your take?  How does the solidarity network idea sound to you?  Share your wisdom — or better yet, join us for our next action, and then tell me what you think.  ;)

15 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    March 28, 2011 8:09 pm

    A good friend of mine was a house boy for a sorority when I was at Cal and loved the job. Doubtless washing dishes sucks, but it’s still not that bad of a job, and free rent in Berkeley is quite a deal. A lot of guys apply for these positions relative to the small number of sororities at Cal, and the sorority was perfectly within their rights to change the conditions of employment for an at-will employee. Additionally, I have a very hard time seeing this as a class struggle issue when the girls whose dues pay this guy’s wages are also for the most part just broke college students trying to get by. It’s perfectly reasonable for them to try and get as much labor as they can for their buck.

    However, it should be noted that my fraternity eschewed the idea of employing domestic workers in favor of something far more egalitarian: Making pledges do all the chores. It’s not terribly fun for a semester, of course, but in the end everyone does the same amount of work.

  2. March 28, 2011 8:55 pm

    Got it John, you think exploitation is perfectly reasonable. For those of us that don’t, fighting it when it happens and gets particularly dehumanizing (i.e. fired and evicted with 3 days notice for complaining about an unpaid work speed-up) is important. People have been fighting with their employers over how “at-will” they’re going to be since employment started, and we’ll keep doing it no matter how many frat boys think squeezing workers for more work is totally cool.

  3. John permalink
    March 28, 2011 10:01 pm

    “Exploitation” is a subjective term, and my intent was just to provide an alternate perspective. One which is consistent with, you know, the “law” (for what that’s worth). I tend to think reasonable people can disagree on these things, but if you’d prefer to toss around pejorative terms that’s cool I guess. I hope I can still count on you to show up with your drum and save the day when my firm “exploits” me by making me show up on weekends.

  4. March 28, 2011 11:20 pm

    John, I see what you’re saying about the way employment works, and how market forces supposedly determine the wages of house boys (sororities pay them as little as possible; workers try to make as much as possible, including the in kind compensation of lodging — which, having lived at my place of employment twice now, in my experience can be seriously challenging and not just a picnic). But I disagree with the free market idea (shocking, I know ;) ), and it’s hard for me to believe that you’re coming from a genuine place when you say that “It’s perfectly reasonable for [employers] to try and get as much labor as they can for their buck.” This, to me, indicates a basic ignorance of the overall tremendous downward pressure on workplace conditions and compensation in low-paying labor, which coincides with employers taking advantage of growing desperation among unemployed workers. You’ve probably at least heard of the common scenario: if a worker complains about the shitty job, the boss is quick to remind them that there are 25 other people who will be happy to do it for less. This significant power imbalance between employers and employees, especially in low-paid work (in which, yes, exploitation differs qualitatively from that in professionalized contexts — the difference being more like housed versus homeless rather than $50,000 a year versus $70,000) is why bosses routinely get away with insufficient safety measures that imperil their workers, to use just one example.

    I’m glad that your friend enjoyed his time as a house boy, but from what I hear, his experience is abnormal among Cal house boys in general, these days. Precarious work, when it’s what you truly rely on to sustain you (in other words, you don’t have a safety net), is often very stressful, not just a cool whatever/meantime gig — you know?

    As for the class struggle thing, it gets tricky because “class” gets used in one way to mean something like “socio-economic status,” and in another, more specific way to mean one’s relationship to economies…but let’s think of it this way. The socioeconomic status of the sorority girls doesn’t really matter any more than that of the patrons of a restaurant. The restaurant might be expensive or cheap; rich people might eat there or poor people might eat there. What matters, for our purposes, is the relationship between the restaurant owners and the restaurant workers — or in this case, the sorority owners/managers and the sorority workers. This is a class-related relationship because of the power difference, not because of wealth. And the customers have little to do with it. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the way this sorority operates, and actually the sisters do have power over workers’ contracts, but the restaurant analogy makes more sense to me.

    The last thing I’ll say is that it makes me sad to consider that unfair, exploitative practices are normalized or omnipresent, and this can fool us into thinking they’re justified or “necessary” in some totalizing way. Especially for those of us who grew up in middle-class families, or with successful bootstrap-type immigrant/up-from-poverty parents like mine, I think it’s imperative that we become acutely aware, and pissed off, about the amazing amount of exploitation happening all around us, to so many people. Just because it’s standard or even legal doesn’t mean it’s right, or that we shouldn’t fight it.

    And who knows: if you were truly incensed about your workplace conditions; if we deemed your demands winnable; if there weren’t other candidates, with equally strong cases, in more dire straits than you; and if you agreed to join the solidarity network and show up for everyone else’s fights (a requirement for everyone whose case we take), we might very well rally against your exploitation. ;)

  5. Rev permalink
    March 28, 2011 11:46 pm

    Good job East Bay Solidarity!

    Exploitation is actually not a very subjective term when one party objectively has ownership of another persons labor power and the product it produces, and then they always pay that person wages of lesser value than the value they produce. If fact it is this objectively exploitative system, capitalism, that allows the owners of the means of production to force humanity to destroy itself and the ecosystem daily on an ever expanding basis. The perspective of these owners is the perspective most consistent with the law, as these are often the people who write the laws, and as these laws and the police that enforce them are what enables capitalists to own people’s labor, their products, and their means of production in the first place. I’d like to think that groups like East Bay Solidarity are consciously trying to nurture and put into action a perspective that is not consistent with the law, or the objectively exploitative capitalist system that the law protects, but rather a perspective that builds our capacity to collectively end exploitation and abolish bourgeois laws altogether.

  6. March 29, 2011 10:47 am

    Thanks, Rev! I think that the political education dimension of EBSol will be really interesting to develop, as well — not only building local power, but also, as you say, a perspective. It’s a live question how large a role education and debate might play — SeaSol, as you prob’ly know, has had a pretty agnostic/hands-off stance throughout their operation, but we might want something a bit more explicit — or at least to be able to point each other to friendly, parallel groups that do quality political education. Could be a great symbiotic relationship! Action and theory!

    Already within the group, a serious political question has arisen that’s forced us to deeply consider our organizational position on intimate violence. A young man wanted to join the group, or at least learn more about it, but it was known to two of us that he had been recently, actively physically abusing his (now ex-) girlfriend. Bringing it from the personal (whether our two members wanted to work with this person) to the political (whether all of us would undermine/contradict our mission as a “solidarity network” by working with him and thus condoning gender oppression and maintaining patriarchy), we decided that we needed to adopt a policy on this issue. As of now, EBSol does not work with known domestic violence perpetrators who have not gone through a lengthy, public, verifiable process to transform their behavior. That doesn’t resolve the question totally, but the important thing is that we’re engaging with political questions that go beyond the scope of a narrowly-defined microstruggle machine that exists purely to win workers compensation and win tenants what they’re due. I think there’s room for more expansiveness and context on other political fronts, as well. It’ll be exciting to develop these questions together.

    Hope you can come to our first open meeting around April 15! More details soon. :) take care.

  7. March 29, 2011 11:51 am

    First: Congratulations on your first action. For some time, I was involved in a group called the Campaign for Renters’ Rights. We did similar stuff. In this case, it’s not only a matter of a worker’s rights, it’s a matter of a renter’s rights. How can somebody be kicked out of their living quarters on only 3 days’ notice? As to what (the other) John says: Sure, it’s completely reasonable to expect an employer to try to get as much labor as possible at as cheap a pay as possible. That’s just life under this system. But, if that’s reasonable, then it’s also just as reasonable to expect the worker to try to get as much pay as possible for the best working conditions possible. That’s also just life. We’re on the side of the majority – the workers!

    I am very interested in your open meeting and would like to get involved, as I am sure others in the IWW, to which I belong, would also.

  8. March 29, 2011 12:02 pm

    Hey John R, thank you! We’d love to have you and other Wobblies. :) And yeah, we got pretty lucky to have our first case be both a tenant and worker fight! Double-whammy.

  9. March 29, 2011 12:37 pm

    Hi, Great to read about the action and get acquainted with your blog. Looks like a great first action! Hope to see more. I also saw that you gave a shout to the LRBW event that we organized recently, thanks!

    As well here’s a blog that some of us in the IWW maintain. Its mostly re-posting of writings by those involved and other pieces we like on worker organizing and building workplace power. Great to ‘meet’ you.

    http://recompositionblog.wordpress.com/

  10. JOMO permalink
    March 30, 2011 11:02 am

    I am so excited to read about this!! Good work y’all and its inspiring to know that Seasol organizers work here are being spread ax the country! Much respect.
    Will: Sorry you had to go through such an experience w the bosses….Good luck and much love:)!

  11. April 1, 2011 7:07 pm

    Loves it!

  12. April 1, 2011 7:56 pm

    Hell yeah! Thanks, y’all. JOMO, I’m psyched to talk to you about the process of getting this thing started.

    I hope/intend to write a longer, more developed piece about this, but I just wanted to mention here that one of the issues we’re tackling together as a small group birthing a solidarity network is the question of how and whether to work with known perpetrators of intimate violence. To me, this is a highly relevant and possibly even core question of any “solidarity network,” and the process of answering it gives us space to bridge and meld different notions and practices of support and solidarity that too often remain politically segregated — with all the hierarchy that segregation implies and entails.

    So just putting that out there. I had a really encouraging meeting this morning with a staffer at CUAV (Communities United Against Violence), and like I said, I’m hoping to be able to put together a polished piece soon.

    Much love to everyone, and can’t wait to ‘meet’ and work with some of you in the Bay!

    ps: Adam, yeah, it was awesome to meet Waistline at the LRBW event that Mikey facilitated. I forgot to put in my write-up that it was hosted by the IWW. I’ll go update it! :) hope you’re well.

  13. April 1, 2011 8:02 pm

    If you are talking about perpetrators of domestic violence, I am definitely against working with them, just as much as working with racists. I’ve known too many women who were victims of this, including one for whom we had a 10 year long campaign for parole after she was involved in the non-fatal shooting of her abuser.

  14. April 1, 2011 8:41 pm

    Wow, that 10-year campaign sounds intense. Yeah, I hear you about being against working with perpetrators….I’ve talked with people — people I respect politically — who have all kinds of perspectives on this, from advocating beating the shit out of rapists, to taking a hands-off, “none-of-my-business” approach. Personally, I’m drawn to the work of INCITE! Women of Color Against Domestic Violence, who not only talk about accountability and ejecting perpetrators from community projects, but also try to form processes to transform violent behaviors. Have you ever had a situation with a political person who’s really solid and developed in a lot of dimensions, but also racist, but also maybe open to changing on that front? Just recently, I had a pretty intense encounter with this older rev cat who I respect a lot, but he was just coming out with all of this misogynistic vitriol and victim-blaming around sex workers. He’s someone I wouldn’t want to just refuse to work with point blank, because he’s great in so many ways, but this was really tough to stomach. Since that conversation (which a handful of people were a part of), a couple of my comrades are trying to read some Marxist stuff on sex work with this person, and see if they can change his mind.

    So I guess what I’m asking is whether you see room for, or a role for, accountable development and transformation of political people who commit abusive and/or violent behaviors? (Or at least offering/attempting to transform such behavior, even if it doesn’t succeed?) I’m trying to figure out my own position, and am really interested in other folks’ experiences….Thanks again for sharing, and for your positive, anti-patriarchal orientation! :)

  15. Jomo permalink
    April 2, 2011 8:27 am

    hey katie,
    i really like emi koyama — she wrote the Transfeminist Manifesto which is a very powerful piece. i think she used to be a part of the Northwest Network out in Seattle which does similar things that the Incite folks describe, with really insightful gender politics and practice. I am gonna be taking their relationship skills class this summer and am hella excited about it:) Anyway! I was gonna say, emi koyama has written alot about the sex industry and working toward decriminalization of it. I am not sure if you’ll agree w what she has to say, but it is an interesting and important perspective talking about how neither the criminal justice system nor sex-worker blaming, cannot create better conditions for sexworkers and eventually it is the economic conditions and patriarchy that need to be overthrown.
    anyway, she has a zine out on it which i havent read but it might be useful for u’all as a resource
    http://eminism.org/blog/category/sex-trade/sex-trade

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