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Silicon Valley DSA: Losing Our Voices, Finding Our Footing

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Silicon Valley DSA:

Losing Our Voices, Finding Our Footing

Halloween can be awkward for adults. If you don’t spend the evening with kids or live somewhere that trick-or-treating is popular, it can be an anti-climactic evening with too much fun-size candy left over. For Silicon Valley DSA, Halloween looked different this year. It was Day 28 of a strike by workers at the Marriott in downtown San José, California. After several days of emoji-laden text banking, nine of us donned costumes and joined the small evening crew of strikers on the picket line to “scare” Marriott into agreeing to a fair contract with its workers. This wasn’t our first time on the line, and by now they knew our faces, if not our names. Together, we chanted:

“Dirty rooms and spooky lights, Marriott workers strike all night!”

Since Wednesday nights were slower for the hotel, the picket line also had fewer workers. This was especially true on Halloween, which many workers preferred to spend at home with their families. With this in mind, Silicon Valley DSA’s labor working group mobilized for the event as a low-key, new member-friendly show of solidarity, costumes encouraged. Soon Sonic the Hedgehog and a walking pile of dirty hotel bed sheets joined the march, while a wizard flyered guests to encourage them to check out. Several new faces who came just to see the picket instead stayed for hours. As workers choreographed their chants, we practiced spooky voices on megaphones. What could have been a “ghost” picket shift with five workers not only felt like a real party, but also exemplified our tactics for strike solidarity.

“What time is it? Check out time.”

In late 2017, roughly half a dozen members of Silicon Valley DSA (SV DSA) established the chapter’s labor working Silicon Valley DSA: Losing Our Voices, Finding Our Footing21group. Our charter recognized worker-led unions as critical for building workplace democracy, finding that such organizations best empower workers to control the products and circumstances of their labor. In addition, we believed DSA’s position enabled us to play an important tactical role in the labor movement through strike solidarity. Our organizational independence from unions provided valuable leeway for devising ways to make strikes more effective. We could also serve as community members in delegations to management, and escalate actions or media pressure when unions could not, due to strict labor laws.

“Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power. What kind of power? Union power.”

A year later in October 2018, nearly 8,000 Marriott workers struck in seven cities across the country, including San José, in the city’s first-ever downtown hotel strike. Our working group seized the opportunity to put our charter’s principles into action. Supporting unionized service industry workers in their fight for a fair contract was essential for us because it aligned with our goals while pushing us to build meaningful and durable coalitions. Although our group knew open-ended strikes (i.e., until demands are met) are rare today and picket lines are often mythologized, they rely on basic tools to succeed. These tools include: withholding labor, maintaining a physical presence on the line, and creating disruptive noise and spectacles that inconvenience management.

“¿Qué queremos? ¡Contrato! ¿Cuando? ¡Ahora! What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!”

We also knew solidarity would have felt performative if we only attended big rallies. Instead, a small but consistent DSA presence on the picket line helped us learn first-hand what the Marriott workers specifically needed and how to best fill those needs. In small moments talking with workers, they taught us what “One job should be enough” (the strike’s nationwide slogan) meant to them. Workers focused on the struggles imposed by the rapid increase in the cost of housing in San José and the threat of automation. Through these interactions, we got to know the workers as not just employees striving for fair labor conditions, but also as our neighbors and friends.

“Marriott, Marriott look around: San José is a union town.”

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Based on these conversations and our background labor organizing knowledge, we strategized around three main goals: (1) supplying financial support for strikers, (2) supplying food for the picket line, and (3) creating spectacles to make the picket line more enjoyable for workers and more disruptive for the hotel. Because UNITE HERE! Local 19 was a relatively small local with less strike experience, its staff was excited to collaborate with us on inventive solidarity actions. Experimentation may not be possible for every DSA chapter supporting union efforts, but in our case acting with initiative and imagination, rather than waiting for instruction, worked well.

“Marriott Marriott rich and rude, we don’t like your attitude.”

Cooking up spectacles was the most creative aspect of our work. From dance performances to a novelty cake, silly ideas became power on the picket line. One member offered to bring her cornet, and at 7 a.m. the next morning she was up and ready to play reveille for guests crossing the line. Strikers gave her a wild reception, encouraging her to play while walking the line. Here and throughout the strike, the workers generously showed us the ropes when it came to annoying guests and being heard.

“All day, all night, this hotel is on strike.”

Sometimes we had to redefine the meaning of success for our efforts. In late October, the convention center adjacent to the Marriott hosted TwitchCon. Tens of thousands of gamers and gaming fans crowded the streets all weekend. Many attended convention events in the Marriott’s ballrooms or stayed at the Marriott while the strike continued. As drunken attendees approached the line or badgered workers, we developed a plan to insulate the picketers from uninformed visitors and divert the negative energy of the attendees in a positive direction. Over two days, we distributed flyers explaining why hotel workers were striking, directed attendees to the strike solidarity fund, and invited convention-goers to join a “picket line party” on Saturday evening.

“Respect our work, respect our time, do not cross our picket line.”

Despite us passing out nearly 1,000 flyers and having great conversations with convention attendees about the strike, only one person from TwitchCon attended our picket party, and almost nobody joined the picket line. Yet, at the same time, convention goers contributed to a noticeable uptick in strike solidarity fund donations. Being persistently visible also attracted media attention, as the popular gaming news blog Kotaku covered the strike, and one SV DSA member spoke to The Nation about labor issues in streaming services such as Twitch. The experience taught us sometimes success doesn’t come in the ways you always expect, and reminded us that there isn’t a clear-cut formula or measure for a successful action.

“Don’t check in, check out! Don’t check in, check out!

Walking the picket line can be loud and intense, but it also frequently offers opportunities for reflection. Fighting capitalism can start with a single workplace and clear, worker-generated demands. In this case, workers at 21 hotels in seven cities took on the largest hotel chain in the world and won. Their victory continues to inspire us and other workers, unionized or not, to realize their collective power. “Who’s in the fight? Local 19. Who’s gonna win? Local 19.”

Over 37 days, we found, lost, and found our voices again. Those who worked on strike solidarity are no longer “comrades” as a generic descriptor; we are bonded by the experience of collective action. Together, we fought sleep deprivation and did things that terrified us. Our comrades became the first people we texted in the morning and the last ones we texted at night. We are already looking for the next reason to pull out our communally-painted “DSA [heart emoji]s union workers” banner. Now that we know the breathtaking feeling of shifting from Sí se puede to Sí se pudo, we are more prepared than ever to build power for the working class.

“Sin contrato, no hay paz. Sin respeto, no hay paz. Sin dinero, no hay paz. Sin justicia, no hay paz.” [No contract, no peace. No respect, no peace. No money, no peace. No justice, no peace.

Silicon Valley DSA hopes you enjoyed the chants included throughout this piece. Like all great chants, they are meant to be shared far and wide, so bring them to a picket or protest near you! You can also read more about the specific solidarity actions we did in our SV DSA Strike Solidarity Kit. We hope this demonstrates that much of our work can be replicated by others with substantial rewards for both workers and our organization.

“Marriott, escucha, estamos en la lucha”[Marriott, listen up, we are in the fight]


To learn more about DSA’s work supporting striking Marriott workers, contact Silicon Valley DSA at: info@siliconvalleydsa.org

You can also follow them on…
Facebook:
Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America
Twitter:
@SV_DSA / @SV_DSA_SJ / @SV_DSA_LP
Instagram:
@Silicon_Valley_DSA
Website:
siliconvalleydsa.org

#HollywoodLabor: An Interview with Jon from DSA LA's Labor Committee

#HollywoodLabor is a project of DSA Los Angeles that played a key role in a successful campaign to expand union membership for entertainment workers in Los Angeles and helped with the campaign to boycott LA Weekly after it was purchased by a conservative investment group. C.M. Lewis interviewed Jon, a rank-and-file member of DSA Los Angeles and an unorganized entertainment industry worker, on the project’s origins, the role for Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the labor movement, and what the project offers for other chapters.

CM: How did you first get involved in DSA?

Jon: I grew up with parents who were involved in the Left. My mom was in the Socialist Workers’ Party in the 60s and 70s and my dad was in Students for a Democratic Society in North Carolina, so I’ve always been kind of radically inclined, but I joined DSA right after Trump got elected.

Like a lot of people, I saw it on Twitter. I was semi-familiar with the organization from when I was in high school. I knew a couple of people that had joined back in D.C., but I certainly hadn’t really been a part of an explicitly socialist organization before. I’d organized anti-war events in college during the Iraq War and organized stuff around human rights issues in high school, but this was the first socialist organization I’d ever joined.

CM: What are your unofficial/official roles in Los Angeles DSA?

Jon: I joined DSA around December 2016 or January 2017. I’ve spent a lot of time in #HollywoodLabor and the Labor Committee. I’ve also done a bit of work with Agitprop directing some videos and helping produce some others. I helped start the Mutual Aid Committee back in July or August of 2017, and I’ve been involved in the Anti-Oppression Committee.

I feel it’s very important to do admin work and quality of life projects. I helped organize our childwatch program at the beginning, and I did a lot of childwatch for a very long time. Coming from D.C., I was exposed to an anarchist perspective and and I’m very big on horizontal organizing and projects that strengthen social bonds between members.

CM: #HollywoodLabor was one of DSA Los Angeles’s first big campaigns. How’d it start?

Jon: I was in a Labor Committee meeting (I say “I” just because I’m telling it from my perspective) and I’d been laid off about a month earlier from a job  for a new media digital company that made short-form video content. I was writing and directing for them. The conditions were very, very terrible: before it went out of business the production got shut down by the city for not having the correct permits, the company used scab labor on another project, and then got protested by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). I was in the Labor Committee expressing these frustrations, and we and some other folks in the industry expressed similar frustrations.

Francisco, who was one of the heads of the Labor Committee at that point, said “You know, I’m seeing a lot of folks in our meetings who are in the film industry”—and he’s an organizer for a teachers’ union, so he’d never really known any Hollywood folks. He kind of recognized there was a need for this project, that DSA Los Angeles (for a couple of different reasons) was going to attract folks in the entertainment industry, and that there was an avenue there for organizing. There are a lot of folks in the entertainment industry whose needs aren’t being served. Many of the digital and new media companies aren’t union, so there’s a whole growing segment of the entertainment workforce that isn’t unionized.

The way unions operate in the entertainment industry is unique. They’re based on the craft union model—they’re engineered in a very specific and unique way to ensure the protection of their members. But the folks on the outside don’t have someone speaking for them as well. I think Francisco saw, in that moment, an opportunity, and it was a really good organizing lesson for me, in that you don’t build a project from the top-down. You build the project from the bottom-up. You see who’s there, who’s showing up, who has a need, and you build the project that way, in a kind of organic bottom-up way.

CM: What were your first steps as a group?

Jon: The first thing was that the people interested in the project came together and we spoke, voiced our frustrations. We’re a fairly diverse group labor-wise. For example, Rachel is an actor, Isabella, Clare, and Brenden are writers and writers assistants, and Andrew is a DP and assistant camera person. So we got together, and we thought about what we could offer, because some of us are union, some of us are not, and well—let me use a story of how the union situation is.

When I was laid off, I had to apply for unemployment. When I went to the unemployment office they said, “Well, okay, you’re a writer. Have you tried joining the Writers Guild?” And I said, “I wish I could,” but that’s just not how it works. There’s a segment of the Hollywood workforce in Los Angeles that not only doesn’t have the protection, but doesn’t have the knowledge around labor protections and how unions work.

Sort of where we landed is that we could raise workers’ consciousness; not in those explicit terms, but I think that was the intent. Our first event was writer’s assistants and script coordinators were in the process of trying to unionize with IATSE. One of the main things we did at our first event was we invited script coordinators and writer’s assistants to come and see a presentation from an organizer at IATSE, we did some breakout groups so we could share stories, and we came back together and talked about how we all have similar problems, and how union organizing can address those problems. Then the people that were writer’s assistants and script coordinators could sign their union cards, so it was a way to help that effort while at the same raising workers’ consciousness.

CM: What are some challenges you see in labor organizing?

Jon: One of the toughest things about organizing in America in 2018 is that there’s a real lack of workers’ consciousness. People literally do not identify as workers, because they’re trained to see themselves like, “I work at a desk all day in an office, I’m not working on a factory floor,” right? So much of the perception of unionism is tied up in this outmoded idea that unions are for coal miners. But what it really comes down to is: if you don’t control the means of production, and you’re not extracting profit off someone else, then you’re a worker.

People get caught up in these ideas of upper class, and lower class, and middle class—and those are all really kind of bullshit. It’s about who controls the means of production, and most of us don’t. Putting that kind of discourse back into labor organizing is an important first step, and to tell people “Hey, you don’t have to take this,” right? Because a lot of what it means to work in Hollywood is to be told “Be grateful.” And we want to shatter that myth that you should be grateful for your job.

Another big thing is that we wanted to forge solidarity across industry lines. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a lot of solidarity when it comes to different positions within Hollywood. There are weird delineations on set, like “above the line” (people like producers, cinematographers, and directors), and “below the line” (everyone else). And you see those delineations in union splits, where “below the line” folks are usually represented by IATSE, and “above the line” folks get represented by their own craft unions.

We don’t want to attack and we’re very explicitly not in opposition to those craft unions, but we do recognize that there’s a lack of solidarity between workers in different unions, and that it could be better. If someone’s being exploited on a production, everyone should be mad.

One of our best events was when we had some non-cisgender male comrades on a panel talking about experiencing sexual harassment in the industry and how to use unionizing and labor organizing tactics to combat that. So there was something really tangible people could walk away with after that meeting. And we did that right as the Harvey Weinstein stuff was breaking. We learned all these practical applications of organizing tactics to fight workplace harassment.

CM: What are some lessons for other chapters?

Jon: I don’t know if it’s controversial or not, but I’ll speak to the fact that I think organizing efforts for DSA Los Angeles and DSA National should really consider what it means to organize the unorganized. The majority of the workforce isn’t organized, and the majority of the workforce doesn’t have a developed workers’ consciousness. And I don’t say that like #HollywoodLabor and other organizations exist to, in that very old school sense, inspire the masses. We’re here to collaborate with fellow workers, we’re here to agitate them, we’re here to remind them, “You’re being exploited and it doesn’t have to be like that.”

I think there’s something very radical about getting a group of people that aren’t in a union together, and getting them to realize what it means to have the power of an organized force, when it’s not just you, ??? Telling each other salaries, sharing stories of workplace sexual, gender, or racial exploitation—I think there’s something very powerful and radical in that.

When we have our meetings, we have them very intentionally. We ask people not to take pictures or use names outside of the room, and we very specifically curate them so people feel safe. People can come, and share, and have conversations that they may not be able to have anywhere else.

I think that what’s needed now, and granted, I’m not in a union, I’m not a union steward, and my experience in labor organizing is about two years old now, is a new and exciting vision for what it means to organize in a world where a lot of people work at McDonald’s, and a lot of people work at a desk.

I think there’s room for folks in non-unionized industries to have those conversations, and I think DSA can be a part of that because we’re all workers, and even if you live in an area where union density is super low, you can still ask people “Hey, does work suck? Do you want to come talk about it?”