Berkeley Ecology Center battles their workers over the
“oldest existing IWW contract in the known universe”
January 15, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Marc Norton
Brothers and sisters from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) put in a lot of legwork on the Hotel Frank picket line, so it was only natural that I responded to their call to join an IWW picket line at the Berkeley Ecology Center last Thursday, January 10. The Ecology Center brags on its website that they “provide good, green-collar jobs.” Try telling that to the thirty workers and supporters who were on the picket line last Thursday.
The IWW has had a contract with the Ecology Center since 1989, but it looks like it might be a fight when that contract expires on February 1. The San Francisco Bay Area Branch of the IWW may not have the clout of the venerable AFL-CIO, but they ain’t pushovers either. According to Bruce Valde, the Branch Secretary, the Ecology Center contract is the “oldest existing IWW contract in the known universe.”
The City of Berkeley contracts with the “non-profit” Ecology Center to do curbside recycling for homes and small apartment buildings. The Ecology Center in turn employs about ten drivers who do the heavy lifting.
And heavy lifting it is. This is a job that is notoriously hard on the body. Thus it is particularly insulting to the workers that the Ecology Center wants to drastically increase the cost of health care. “The Ecology Center facilitates urban lifestyles consistent with the goals of ecological sustainability, social equity, and economic development,” says their website. Apparently healthy workers and affordable health care isn’t part of their brand of ecology.
Nor are good wages. The Ecology Center wants to give their curbside recyclers small raises in the first and second years of the contract, and then a wage freeze for the next three years. And they want to stop their modest $2,000-per year contribution to an annuity for each worker, and replace it with a dollar-for-dollar match with whatever their workers can afford to pay.
Martin Bourque, the Ecology Center’s Executive Director, has bluntly proclaimed that he expects employees to “work harder for less money,” according to John Reimann of the IWW.
So workers, supporters and IWW comrades waved picket signs and banners on Thursday along busy Gilman Avenue, getting plenty of honks from passing motorists and trucks. Then everybody crowded into the 2nd Street entrance to the curbside recycling facility for a short rally. Several Ecology Center workers spoke, and the message was the same: “Enough, already. No concessions. We will fight.”
The IWW was founded in 1905, a very different time. But then, like now, the labor movement was at a low ebb, faced implacable enemies, and desperately needed a new direction and an infusion of rank-and-file militancy. The IWW set its aim high. The original preamble to the IWW constitution read, and still reads: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”
The IWW took on the bosses with a vengeance, primarily with direct action and rank-and-file leadership. The IWW had both victories and defeats, but shook up the country like few have since. Wobblies, as they were called, unswervingly opposed sending American boys overseas to fight in World War I, which they correctly saw as another “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.” This courageous stand brought them increased repression, and the organization essentially collapsed as an organized movement. But the IWW banner has been raised again and again by workers who share their aims, and has had a bit of a rebirth in recent years.
The IWW-organized workers at the Ecology Center are building on a rich and long tradition. I have a particular affinity for small groups of workers who are in a serious fight, but don’t necessarily have the solidarity of the more mainstream labor movement behind them.
The next negotiations between the Ecology Center and their workers are set for Tuesday, January 15.