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  • Writer's pictureKevin Van Meter

How Can First-Person Narratives of Work and Workers’ Inquiry Aid Organizing?

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

A workshop on first-person narratives and workers' inquiry. Offered Spring 2023 and thereafter.

Workers’ movements have always engaged in investigation, research, analysis, and publishing to aid organizing efforts. The historical record of its findings fills bookshelves, libraries, and archives. Today unions utilize bargaining surveys, networks of labor activists publish monthly magazines, movement publishers and academics produce a wide array of materials, as do workers’ organizations and individual workers themselves.

However, there are two forms common in the historical record but conspicuously absent from many of our contemporary efforts—first-person narratives written by workers themselves and workers’ inquiries. Unlike these aforementioned forms they are conducted either prior to formal organizing efforts or to challenge formal organizations when they no longer serve the workers’ themselves. First-person narratives and workers’ inquiry are strategic interventions to grasp the machinations of the production process, informal work groups and divisions within the class, forms of mutual aid and informal organization, natural and “organic” leadership, and the working-class’s power vis-à-vis capitalism as to further class struggle.

First-person narratives and workers’ inquiry can aid the recent uptick in new organizing efforts, launch of newly independent unions, renewal of solidarity unionism (or what has been called “pre-majority” or “minority unions”), success of grassroots rank-and-file caucuses, and expansion of demands beyond wages-hours-working conditions to prioritizing the fight against oppression and workplace democracy.

This workshop will introduce participants to the history and contemporary practice of first-person narratives and workers’ inquiry and recommend their use in organizing efforts and workers’ movements.

First-person narratives

There is a rich history of first-person narratives produced by workers directly or as a partnership between workers and organizers in the United States. The majority of these have been important contributions to working-class life and culture generally, however there is a subset of projects seeking to understand conditions of production as to further worker power and organizing specifically.

“People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” so reads the subtitle of Studs Terkel’s noted 1972 book Working. Terkel’s collection, along with an inspired follow up in 2000 titled Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, are amongst the most recognized first-person narrative of the working lives of working-class peoples in the US. Collections such as Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers by Alice Lynd and Staughton Lynd or memoirs such as Acceptable Men: Life in the largest steel mill in the world by Noel Ignatiev have become more common; the latter becoming a genre of its own. Moreover, unnumerable zines including Temp Slave, On Subbing, Xtra Tuf, and Dishwasher and magazines like Processed World provide accounts and insight into day-to-day experiences at work, and should serve as models for communication, culture building, and worker education.

While vital contributions to working-class culture and life, the stories told in these collections seek to humanize workers, share their intricate feelings about and experiences of work, they are sociological or historical endeavors to provide insights into “ordinary people” and not specifically geared to organizing workers.

Recent endeavors including The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke and attendant Working People Podcast, have included organizing accounts as part of the series of exploring worker stories. In 2020 the journal New Labor Forum launched its “Working-Class Voices: First Person Accounts of Life and Work” column and has thus far carried stories from workers at Starbucks and Amazon along with teachers and essential workers, often paring them with detailed accounts of organizing efforts. These serve as great hybrid models between cultural endeavors and organizing interventions.

One of earliest examples of first-person narratives about work by workers as an organizing intervention is the 1947 pamphlet The American Worker. Written by autoworker Paul Romano and Ria Stone (pen name of Chinese-American luminary Grace Lee Boggs) began as a diary of “the day-to-day reactions to factory life” and “is directed to the rank-and-file worker and its intention is to express those innermost thoughts which the worker rarely talks about even to [their] fellow-workers.” Romano and Boggs’s contribution had immediate and considerable international influence; while their cohort produced neighboring pamphlets focusing on then-unaddressed matters of youth, housework, and black liberation; similar publications by generations of working-class activists followed.

What about the “innermost thoughts” and diaries “of the day-to-day reactions to factory life” of workers today? How can The American Worker guide those organizing in Amazon warehouses and Starbucks cafes? How can it aid those who work in office cubicles and social service nonprofits, supermarkets and warehouses, farms and fields, kitchens and bedrooms, on apps and online platforms?

Workers’ Inquiry

Adjoining the history of first-person narratives is a history of workers’ inquiry. In fact, a few years prior to publishing The American Worker and their cohort encountered a translation of Karl Marx’s 101-question survey A Workers’ Inquiry.

As noted in the introduction to Clark McAllister’s recent book Karl Marx’s Workers’ Inquiry: International History, Reception, and Responses, workers’ inquiry “aim[s] to increase knowledge of workers’ situations in order to advance workers’ power.” Furthermore, in Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Strategies, Tactics, and Objectives Robert Ovetz offers, “A workers’ inquiry serves a critically dual role: for workers to inform themselves about their own class power in a particular struggle, and to provide a model for workers to emulate in their own struggles elsewhere.”

Swayed by reading The American Worker and utilizing the survey method and political objectives of workers’ inquiry, in the years that followed autoworkers in Detroit (MN), Linden (NJ), Turin (Italy), and Billancourt (France) published interventions as to further worker organizing and class struggles. Workers’ inquiries that began in the automotive sector circulated though other factories and workplaces in the 1950s and 1960s, and then in the late-1960s and early 1970s worker-student coalitions across the US, Canada, Europe, and the planet deployed them as part of their own struggles.

In recent years collections including Lines of Work: Stories of Jobs and Resistance, Class Power on Zero-Hours, and From the Workplace: A Collection of Worker Writing and anonymous pamphlets such as the provocatively titled Abolish Restaurants: A Workers’ Critique of the Food Service Industry, have inquired into the conditions of call center workers, bartenders, truckers, teaching assistants, and tech workers. Declaring “no politics without inquiry” and reversing the class relation by reading the capitalist imposition of work from the working-classes perspective, these efforts have sought to further worker organizing as well as refuse the role work has in our lives (what is often called antiwork in the contemporary US). Moreover, the goal of these workers is not just organize a union, if they choose to organize in through formal and legal structures at all, but to gain some control over the workplace. Many of these efforts, and ours in this workshop, are guided by the concept of class composition—that is, “the level of unity and homogeneity that the working class reaches during a cycle of struggle in the process of going from one political composition to another. Essentially, it involves the overthrow of capitalist divisions, the creation of new unities between different sectors of the class, and an expansion of the boundaries of what the ‘working class’ comes to include,” as the Zerowork collective offered in their first journal issue in 1975.

What can we do to “increase knowledge of workers’ situations in order to advance workers’ power” and offer “model[s] for workers to emulate in their own struggles elsewhere”? How can workers’ inquiry aid those organizing in Amazon warehouses and Starbucks cafes? How can it further the struggles of those who work for wages as well as those who toil without wages? How can it further the struggles for a world with less work and for control over the work that remains as to provide good and services to all those who need them?

Aiding Organizing

New workers movements at Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, Starbuck’s, and Amazon in addition to those Bargaining for the Common Good in education, healthcare, food systems, and other industries demanding better wages, working conditions, and workplace democracy can gain from utilizing the methods of first-person narratives and workers’ inquiry. While the organizing drives of the past few years have been exhilarating, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics by the conclusion of 2022, “unionization rates were lowest in food preparation and serving related occupations (3.1 percent); sales and related occupations (3.3 percent); computer and mathematical occupations (3.7 percent); personal care and service occupations (3.9 percent).” Meaning, considerable organizing is yet to come, and accounts of these efforts must circulate into unorganized workplaces. Labor scholars and activists, unions and workers’organizations need to build political power on the job and in their communities, but not “without inquiry.” Our workplaces and our future depend on it.

The workshop will be broken into two parts. Part one will consist of a presentation on various strategies and tactics for developing, implementing, and circulating first-person narratives of work and worker’s inquiries grounded in historical and contemporary examples as well as the concept of class composition. Part two will begin with a large group discussion to craft a sample plan to use first-person narratives and workers’ inquiry in a labor context followed by small groups where participants will collectively create a one-to-three paragraph narrative based on a participants experience or create a small sample survey.

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