The Desktop Revolution in Worker Protection

Sometimes anarchists are asked, without a government, who will stop employers from treating their workers badly?

The answer is, we will.

Conventional unions have been in decline for years, and labor laws — such as they are — are generally notable for their lack of enforcement.

But if employers laugh at unions and labor regulations, one thing they’re seriously afraid of is public exposure and embarrassment.  If you’re in a workplace without a union, the bosses probably think they hold the whip hand over you.  Your employer’s public image and good name may be the only leverage you’ve got over him.  But it’s a doozy.

The most effective form of labor action in recent years, arguably, has been networked public pressure campaigns and boycotts.

A good example is the Imolakee Indian Workers’ successful boycott against Taco Bell and a long list of other fast food chains, which resulted in a high-profile settlement.

Another is the Wal-Mart Workers’ Association, which has repeatedly forced local  Wal-Mart stores to back down on labor issues in the face of public embarrassment.  Among other things, some local managers were forced into hasty retreats and stammering “clarifications” in the face of negative publicity over so-called “open availability” policies, which required workers to be on call 24/7 in order to get their hours in.

Most recently, the United Farm Workers organized a boycott campaign against Giumarra Vinyards for what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to reenact the Bataan Death March (e.g., threatening to fire the slowest worker every day and then watching grape pickers race each other in hundred-degree heat, which predictably resulted in deaths from heat stroke).

Here’s a little secret:  public picketing, distribution of flyers, and boycotts don’t require a certified union local in the workplace in question to be effective.  And if workers in that place win the sympathy and solidarity of a national labor advocacy group like WWA, the employers can’t fire the latter for embarrassing them.  Neither can they fire the reporters who show up at picket sites to see what all the hubbub’s about.

Back in the Nineties, when networked activism was just in its formative stages, Rand analysts David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla did a study on the global support network for the Zapatistas.  This organization, and subsequent networked movements for which it was the protype, are quite proficient at “swarming” corporations and government agencies with more public letters, emails, and phone calls than they can cope with — not to mention subjecting them to publicity comparable in effect to a magnifying glass on an anthill.

It’s essentially the same thing the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, traditionally called “open mouth sabotage”:  exposing the bosses’ dirty laundry to the public.  And it’s fiendishly effective.

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