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labor The Radical Guidebook Embraced by Google Workers and Uber Drivers

Technology and ride-hailing workers embrace lessons from a book based on ideas associated with a labor group, the IWW, from the early 20th century. The book has provided a blueprint for organizing collective power without a formal union.

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A recent edition of “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer,” a book offering guidance for workers seeking to organize. It has become influential in the technology and ride-hailing industries. , Kelly Marshall for the New York Times

Just before 20,000 Google employees left their desks last fall to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment, a debate broke out among the hundreds of workers involved in formulating a list of demands.

Some workers argued that they could win fairer pay policies and a full accounting of harassment claims by filing lawsuits or seeking to unionize.

But the argument that gained the upper hand, especially as the debate escalated in the weeks after the walkout, held that those approaches would be futile, according to two people involved. Those who felt this way contended that only a less formal, worker-led organization could succeed, by waging mass resistance or implicitly threatening to do so.

This view, based on century-old ideas, did not emerge in a vacuum. It can be traced in part to a book called “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer,” which many Googlers had read and discussed.

Its authors are a longtime labor historian, Staughton Lynd, and an organizer, Daniel Gross. They identify with a strain of unionism popularized in the early 1900s by the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor group known as the Wobblies that defined itself in opposition to mainstream trade unions.

The book has been “incredibly helpful in thinking through options for action, ways of building collective power, and giving workers who often aren’t familiar with labor law some working knowledge that can guide decision making,” said Meredith Whittaker, a leader of the walkout who left Google in July after more than a dozen years at the company.


Staughton Lynd, a historian long active in labor and civil-rights causes, wrote the first edition of “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer” in 1978. He turns 90 next month.
Credit: Dustin Franz for The New York Times

 

 

And Googlers aren’t the only ones who have drawn inspiration from the book. Workers at the crowdfunding company Kickstarter, the site of a recent union campaign, have studied it. Organizers with one of the largest Uber driver groups say the ideas have influenced them as well.

 

Mr. Lynd and Mr. Gross lay out a practical guide for staging a kind of workplace revolution that upends the balance of power between management and labor.

They explain, for example, when striking workers enjoy strong legal protections (in taking aim at unfair labor practices like retaliation) and when they are more exposed (in strikes focused strictly on economic demands). They discuss the circumstances under which workers can take their concerns to the media, such as a news conference in which coffee shop employees disclosed evidence of rat and insect infestations.

But more broadly, the book serves as a polemic contrasting mainstream “business unions” with what the Wobblies refer to as “solidarity unions” — that is, worker-led groups that are not typically certified as exclusive bargaining agents under federal law and therefore don’t need to win majority support to exist.

The business union “is controlled from the top down by officers and staff (usually white males) who are not regularly employed at the workplace,” Mr. Lynd and Mr. Gross write. They complain that a business union is preoccupied with achieving a bargaining agreement that requires workers to give up the right to strike and any say in the company’s major decisions.

When there is trouble at the workplace, they write, “the union member calls a steward or business agent and hopes that some bureaucratic process disconnected from the rank and file will right the wrong.”