by FW Noah
Many in the IWW are familiar with the phrase “direct action gets the goods”. In our union’s century-long history, direct action has been one of the most powerful methods that workers have used to gain control and organize their shops. Whether working to rule, marching on the boss, or going on strike, workers have a variety of tools at their disposal to wield their collective power in their best interests and stand up against the often unquestioned authority of the boss.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, Doughnut Workers United has been one of our local examples of how direct action can yield a better life for workers organizing their workplaces. The Doughnut Workers United union was formed on March 20th, 2020, and focused its collective strength to organize the workers of Voodoo Doughnut’s Old Town location, a famous baked goods establishment in Portland OR. The workers’ main concerns were unsafe working conditions, expensive health care benefits only offered to full time employees, wages that started only slightly above the legal minimum, and a lack of severance or PTO given to those laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the wildfires of late summer 2020, workers with the union took the initiative to protect each other due to the lack of adequate ventilation or air conditioning in the shop. They decided to supply KN95 masks to relieve the workers from smoke inhalation while on the job.
When management found out about this, they ordered the masks to be disposed of. Regardless, many workers continued to build solidarity in the face of management’s blatant union busting, by distributing leaflets to customers waiting in line outside the shop, holding public demonstrations and agitating on the job. Eventually the workers found that a sizable portion of the workplace would support a union, and in February of 2021, workers demanded that the company voluntarily recognize the union. Management predictably refused, so the workers filed for an NLRB election.
While the votes were being collected and counted in June of that year, another record-breaking heat wave took place, which strained the workers harder than the previous summer and exposed them to temperature levels that lead to symptoms of heat stress. Management had continued to delay improvements to air conditioning, with the one unit installed that year being unable to adequately cool the air to safer temperatures in the shop, so the workers decided to escalate by walking off of the job in protest during the two peak days of the heat wave. Their impromptu strike rallied both workers in the shop and the community around them to focus on the workers grievances, and greater demands for the management to better protect and provide for their workers grew.
Management did not take the walkoff lying down. They immediately fired nine workers who walked off of the job with no reason besides the obvious — that they stood up for themselves to demand safer working conditions.
Doughnut Workers United was quick to file grievances with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) because it was a blatant attempt to dissuade workers from aligning with the union. Despite their first NLRB election resulting in a tie vote, and therefore no official recognition, the NLRB would later recognize that the workers were fired illegally, as it was potentially interfering with the ongoing union election and prohibiting legal collective action.
Voodoo Doughnut was ordered in December to rehire seven of them as well as provide back pay for the two-day strike. Despite this setback, management continued the typical union busting strategies of closed door meetings with individual workers by the bosses, workplace surveillance by management, and continuing to fire workers — sometimes publicly — to intimidate would-be unionists.
Following this action and settlement, the DWU continued to organize in the following year and filed for another election in August of 2022, and achieved official NLRB recognition in a vote tallying 16 in favor and 6 against in September.
NLRB elections are not the primary method of organizing proposed by the philosophy of the IWW, which teaches solidarity unionism through worker-led organizing and direct actions to build solidarity and visibility. Such NLRB elections are often rigged by employers (through shop floor gerrymandering), time consuming and place the future of a union in the hands of an election process outside of the workers hands. How the DWU was able to achieve their electoral victory was not by the false sense of security in the election process itself, but by the consistent organizing efforts of fellow workers and the continuation of direct actions, utilizing a myriad of methods, in order to win over workers.
While the process of contract negotiation has only just begun, and workers are still being surveyed as to what they wish to see immediately changed in the shop, their dedication and sacrifice in the face of unfair labor violations, unlawful firings, closed door meetings with individual workers by the bosses, and surveillance by management should be an example to all workers that the threat of retaliation by the bosses is hollow.
Continuous agitation, education, and collective actions are the true backbone of any union campaign, and do the heavy lifting of bringing workers together to solve common problems on their own terms. For the DWU, direct action got them the best goods a worker can get: a union by the rank-and-file efforts of those who wish to see a better arrangement of labor in the here and now.