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Book Review: Wages So Low You'll Freak

Wages So Low You'll Freak, by Mike Pudd'nhead

Book Review by Chris

Wages So Low You'll Freak

I gave this book to a friend as a late Christmas present. “Just read the first chapter,” I said, “then see if you can stop.” By 3am the next day he’d read the whole thing cover to cover in one marathon all-night session.

Wages So Low You’ll Freak deserves to be a small classic. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages. It covers radical politics and workplace organising in a way that’s honest, often extremely funny, and is totally relatable for young, early 21st century workers bouncing from one precarious, poorly paid job to the next.

The book is a sprawling, four-year-long, first-person narrative of Mike Wilklow’s attempts to organise a union at Jimmy John’s – a chain sandwich store with about 1,000 outlets throughout the US. At 22, fresh out of college and a recent signup to the Industrial Workers of the World, Wilklow joins his best friend in getting a minimum wage job at Jimmy John’s and sets to work.

Unlike most conventional unions, the Industrial Workers of the World preaches an ethic of “solidarity unionism.” Rather than aiming exclusively for formal membership and legal bargaining rights, the IWW emphasises collective direct action on the shop floor to build workers’ confidence and win small, concrete improvements, followed by progressively larger actions over more ambitious goals.

Thus within a few months, despite representing only a miniscule fraction of the workforce, Wilklow and his co-workers are already taking action. When someone is arbitrarily fired for phoning in sick, dozens of IWW members call up the store to complain, jamming its phone lines and causing chaos while a handful of workers confront the boss together. When a new store manager takes over and begins sexually harassing staff, workers start a petition and get him fired. And when a supervisor in one shop punches out a union supporter for cutting a sandwich diagonally rather than straight across, every single person in the store stops work and gets that supervisor fired as well. Between 2007-2010, the battle on the shop floor rages back and forth until each of the ten Jimmy John’s stores in Minneapolis – where Wilklow is living and working – have a large number of union supporters in them ready to publicly declare their IWW membership and take on the company on a much larger scale.

There’s so much that I liked about Wages So Low You’ll Freak. For one thing, it’s just a great story. While the emphasis is on Wilklow’s attempts to organise a union, it also reads as something of an autobiography of four years of his life, bouncing around between demeaning minimum wage work, basement punk gigs, hook-ups, breakups, protests, parties, binge drinking, gambling and bike culture. The writing is really sharp and accessible, and the book is consistently entertaining and funny.
Wilklow is also pretty honest about himself and his own flaws. The book opens with a bizarre piece called “Why Happiness?” which he wrote as a 23-year-old, and each chapter includes a short entry from the diary he kept during the campaign. He also does a good job of depicting himself as an inexperienced, often immature early-twentysomething: he stuffs up repeatedly, says the wrong things, does the wrong things, can’t hold relationships together, is stubborn, talks too much, and is constantly hung over. But he has no trouble admitting all of this and is relentlessly self-deprecating.

Probably the most valuable thing about this book, though, is that it’s one of the only accounts of a union organising campaign that I know of which has been written not by an academic or a labour scholar or a paid union organiser, but by an actual participant who was there every day on the shopfloor. Union membership in Australia has plummeted from 56% of the workforce in the mid-1970s to less than 15% today, and the experience and cultural memory of rank-and-file workplace organisation has been almost totally lost. For that reason alone, Wages So Low You’ll Freak is incredibly useful and important: you can learn a lot about how to organise your own workplace just from reading it, not mention gain a lot of confidence about what it’s possible to achieve.  In this light, the book’s setting in the unorganised, minimum wage service industry is pretty perfect, and the author solidly emphasises workplace organising that is under the control of workers themselves, without the interference of paid union organisers or bureaucrats.

For all these reasons I think Wages So Low You’ll Freak is a really enjoyable and valuable read. You can order it online from Microcosm Press and copies are also sold here at Jura Books in Sydney.

 

Provisional Anarchist Federation Australia formed

 

At a meeting on 14th June 2015 at Jura Books, delegates from four anarchist groups agreed to form a provisional Anarchist Federation Australia. The four founding groups were Jura Books, the Melbourne Anarchist Club, the Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group and Perth Libertarians. At the meeting a number of individual observers were also present as well as an observer from Black Rose and Black Flag. The provisional Federation is based on this constitution. However the constitution is still being discussed, and changes may be made at the first Congress of the Federation - tentatively scheduled for December 2015 in Melbourne. As well as being geographically diverse, the groups making up the federation have a range of political differences, but we hope to work together cooperatively to spread anarchist ideas in Australia. Other anarchist groups are welcome to join us.

 

Direct Action - Series 2, No. 3, 3 June 1928

Direct Action - Series 2, issue number 3, published 3 June 1928 p. 1, 4

Miscellaneous: 

How to Make Trouble and Influence People

How to Make Trouble and Influence People book

Jura is excited to stock the second edition of How to Make Trouble and Influence People - a brilliant book on Australia's radical past. Copies available for $35. Mail order available - just email us.
 
About the book:

This book reveals Australia’s radical past through more than 500 tales of Indigenous resistance, convict revolts and escapes, picket line hijinks, student occupations, creative direct action, street art, media pranks, urban interventions, squatting, blockades, banner drops, guerilla theatre, and billboard liberation. Twelve key Australian activists and pranksters are interviewed regarding their opposition to racism, nuclear power, war, economic exploitation, and religious conservatism via humour and creativity. Featuring more than 300 spectacular images How to Make Trouble and Influence People has been published in a second edition by PM Press. As this edition will mainly be distributed to audiences outside of Australia all of the listings from the first edition have been put in chronological order and introductions added for key periods in Australian history. It also features an additional 30 pages of new material.

Praise for the book:

“I noticed clear back on my first visit in ’83 that radical Aussies fighting back seem to be far more tenacious and creative than most Americans—Roxby Downs, that damned Franklin dam in Tasmania, Operation Titstorm, etc. A far better way to heat up the planet than your lovely mining companies. So keep up the good work! A prank a day keeps the dog leash away.”
—Jello Biafra

“A fascinating recovery of Australia’s neglected past and a worthy inspiration to today’s would-be troublemakers.”
—Sean Scalmer, author of Dissent Events: Protest, The Media and the Political Gimmick in Australia

“If you’ve ever thought of speaking out about an issue or have idly wondered what you could do to make the world a better place, this is the book for you! Fascinating interviews, quirky historical snippets and stunning photos chronicling all the Australians who have made a difference and who have done so with courage, audacity and a lot of humour! Keep it on your desk at work for all those moments when you need some inspiration, a bit of hope or just a good laugh.”
—Jill Sparrow, co-author Radical Melbourne 1 & 2

“Fascinating interviews with Australia’s best troublemakers make for a riotous scrapbook covering our radical history of revolts and resistance.”
—Rachel Power, Australian Education Union News

“McIntyre has amassed hundreds of tales alongside dramatic photographs in what is unashamedly a songbook for Australia’s future culture-jammers and mischief makers.”
—Katherine Wilson, The Age

Miscellaneous: 

Pages