Wages So Low You'll Freak, by Mike Pudd'nhead
Book Review by Chris
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.