Thursday, September 30, 2010

[olympiaworkers] Interview with the Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol), 2010

Libcom interviews a member of the Seattle Solidarity Network, a direct
action group that is dedicated to winning small fights against bosses and
landlords over issues such as unpaid wages and stolen deposits.

Who are you?
I'm Matt, currently unemployed and living in Seattle, having moved here
from England six years ago. I've been a member of Seattle Solidarity
Network since it started. Before that I was in the IWW in Seattle and
various anarchist groups, such as the Anarchist Federation in the UK.

Briefly, what is the group?
Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol) is a small workers' and tenants'
mutual aid group that focuses on winning small fights against bosses and
landlords, over issues such as unpaid wages and stolen deposits, through
the use of collective action in the form of pickets and demonstrations.

How big is it and what dates was it active from?
It's hard to say exactly how big SeaSol is. If we quantify it by official
membership, which has only recently been introduced, around sixty. Ten to
forty people turn up to the average action, and we have a contact list of
around four hundred people - I'm guessing that at least half have
participated in one or more actions or events. The 'organising team' - the
people who have agreed to a slightly higher level of commitment, who do
most of the day to day work such as manning the phone tree, answering
calls and meeting with new people - is made up of around a dozen members.

SeaSol started in the last months of 2007 and is still going strong.

How did it get started?
It got started because a small group of us, mostly IWW members and
anarchists in Seattle, were frustrated with our current lack of activity.
The Seattle IWW general membership branch was too small and lacking in
resources to attempt to organise any workplaces - the best we could do
would be offer training and support to any workers who approached us
interested in unionising their workplace, something that happens only
occasionally and hasn't yet progressed to an organising drive. My own
perspective originated from frustration with symbolic and ineffectual
anti-war and anti-globalisation protests and anarchist propaganda groups
that had limited relevance to most people's lives, including my own.

SeaSol started from a mixture of notions such as trying to create a flying
picket squad or a direct action casework group in the vein of OCAP. Some
members had a minor experience with wage reclaiming, in an individual case
where a friend had been hired for one day at a restaurant and then told
she was no longer needed and would not be paid as it was a "training day"
- by turning up at the restaurant as a large group, they forced the owner
to pay her. Another member already had a website and email list for strike
support news in Seattle, so we put it to a new use as well as taking its

At the beginning we did not have a clear idea of exactly what we would do
but decided to focus on supporting workers and tenants in struggles, in
ways where we could win immediate gains rather than getting bogged down in
everlasting campaigns. Also in ways that would benefit ourselves if we
ever got into a conflict with our own bosses or landlords. For that
purpose we designed two posters: "Problems with your boss?" and "Problems
with your landlord? Contact us." We put these posters up around Seattle,
got a few phone calls, and that's how it started!

Why were more other more traditional organisations (e.g. trade unions) not
We wanted to do it ourselves, not through some other organisation.
Persuading some other group to take up this relatively unknown approach
would have been a waste of time. It made sense to create SeaSol as a
separate organisation from the IWW for various reasons - we would not be
subject to secondary picketing laws, not all the initial people involved
were IWW members, and it would allow us to be more flexible. The various
bureaucratic NGOs and unions were too slow moving to take or even follow
initiative in the area of small housing and work-related fights, anyway.

What problems did you come up against at first? How did you overcome them?
As I've mentioned above, we didn't initially have a very clear idea of
what we were going to do - that became clearer as we went on. At first I
was skeptical about the idea that posters would actually generate valid
campaigns we could involve ourselves in - but it worked. One of the first
few calls we received was from a shipyard worker who was pissed off about
the bad conditions and the complacency of his union in his workplace - so
we got together with him and made some flyers that he would distribute in
his workplace. Unfortunately this approach didn't work, there was little
interest from his co-workers and all we received was an angry phone call
from one of the union officials for that workplace. We didn't really have
a coherent plan for how to approach this campaign. Over time we would
develop a set of tactics and ways of doing things. As we went along and
won a series of fights, we gained allies and recognition from other
groups, something we were lacking at the beginning.

Which remained problems the whole time?
Retaining the involvement of people who approached us for help has often
been a problem. We always state that Seattle Solidarity Network isn't a
charity or social work, it's a mutual support network, which means we
expect that if we help you in your fight, you will help others in other
fights. Often, people will stay involved and participate in a few actions
other than their own for a month or two but then not be heard from again.
However, some people who initially contacted us for support in their
struggle have taken a more active role and joined the organising team, and
many that don't do that keep participating for months after their fight
has been won. With the introduction of membership, and a greater clarity
about what being a part of SeaSol is, it looks like we're starting to keep
people involved more. I expect that some people will always leave after
their own fight is won - that shouldn't dishearten us.

Another issue that was pointed out by a former organiser is that there is
a 'demographic disparity' between the organising team and the people who
often approach us for help in their fights. That is to say, the core
activists are mostly white, and the people with the issues are more often
from ethnic minorities. This may be an obstacle for some people to get
more involved in the group. There isn't much we can do, except keep
fighting and as we grow, our organisation will attract people from a wider
range of backgrounds. This seems to be happening as we gradually pick up
people from the fights we've been involved in.

One problem we've noticed in workplace-related fights is that some
employees, if for example they are faced with a picket outside the
restaurant they work in, buy into the management's side of the story and
resent our presence which results in reduced business and therefore lost
tips for them. We've successfully started countering this by making a
collection amongst the demonstrators to make up for the lost tips, and
clearly explaining to workers that we are not against them, we are against
their boss. We need to keep doing this, and start communicating more with
workers before beginning a campaign.

When did things start to gain momentum/take off?
It took over four months since we first started putting posters up. Our
first real fight was when we were contacted by some people living in the
Greenlake Motel. This "motel" was really a pay by the week long term
residence for people who couldn't pass the checks necessary to get higher
quality, lower cost housing - because they had a criminal record or bad
credit or housing history, or couldn't afford the usual first and last
month's plus a damage deposit of rented housing. They had seen our poster
and complained of terrible living conditions - mould, leaks, broken
heating, etc. After some door knocking to gauge the situation some SeaSol
members and tenants drew up a demand letter listing the repairs that
needed to be made. We gathered a couple of dozen people and with one of
the tenants (unfortunately the other tenants were too nervous about being
evicted) we went to the landlords' more respectable hotel and delivered
the demand letter to the perplexed receptionist.

A few days later the landlords went round each flat and made the necessary
repairs, while warning the tenants not to talk to "those communists". This
was our first significant success. This wasn't the end of the Greenlake
Motel story though - a few months later, we were contacted again - the
motel had been condemned by the Health Department. The tenants, since they
were technically short term motel residents and therefore not entitled to
the same legal protections as regular tenants, were facing immediate
eviction. They were more willing to fight as a group this time, and won
relocation assistance (three months' worth of rent each) to move to better

What struggles were you involved in?
Since the beginning of 2008, we've started at least 21 fights and won 17
of them. The issues being fought range from unpaid wages to unfair
evictions. For a comprehensive list, our website lists almost every fight
we've been involved in - apart from a handful that never got off the
ground or were resolved before we had to take action.

This very short video gives a good overview of the past year's fights.

As you'll note the struggles are rather small scale, involving an issue
that only affects one or a small number of workers or tenants, who have
often left their old job or rental situation. This is the main limitation
of our current organising method. However we don't see this as a huge
obstacle because we aren't intending to limit ourselves to just these
small fights forever. Instead we view them as first steps to more
ambitious projects. As we build up experience, confidence, membership, a
support base, contacts, reputation and so on, we intend to branch out into
other forms of organisation, such as helping set up and assisting tenants'
and workplace groups. We are committed to a flexible, experimental
approach. I view these small fights as a training ground for class
struggle organising, from which we can progress to bigger, more
collective, more prolonged projects.

What types of action did you take?
Every fight starts with a 'demand delivery' like the one linked here. We
turn up as a large group at the boss or landlord's office or business. The
person with the issue hands a demand letter stating what needs to be done
to the boss by a certain deadline of one or two weeks. This is basically a
show of strength - the worker or tenant is supported by a large group of
people - and a warning. The boss or landlord can give in now, or there
will be trouble later.

If we're lucky, the boss or landlord will give in before the deadline. If
not, we start an escalating campaign. We start fairly small, then increase
the pressure by adding more types of actions, more often, of increasing
size. Our mainstay is a picket of a dozen or so people outside the enemy's
place of business. If it's a restaurant or shop, this often proves
economically devastating, reducing sales by half or more during the times
we are there. Other techniques we use are poster campaigns to turn away
prospective tenants, public embarrassment by leafleting the boss's church
or neighbourhood, interfering with suppliers or business partners, phone
and internet actions, and anything else we can think of. We try to be
pretty imaginative.

What links did you have with other groups of workers? (Other sectors,
other countries, political groups, etc.)
We occasionally cooperate with the comite de defensa trabajadora of Casa
Latina, the more direct action oriented section of a local NGO. We support
each others campaigns and sometimes do joint actions. We've also done
strike support, such as turning up to the picket lines at the recent Coca
Cola strike. We were planning to support a campaign around reducing
mortgage rates by a militant section of the plumbers' union, but that
never materialised. We work closely with the IWW where applicable, most
recently by doing a solidarity action for the newly formed Jimmy Johns
Workers Union.

The newest join project is with IWSJ, a student and worker group at the
University of Washington centered around a rank and file group of
janitors. They are interested in doing SeaSol-type actions within the
low-paid immigrant communities they have good links with, and we are
interested in learning about workplace groups from them. We'll see how
that develops.

We are trying to support and encourage the formation of solidarity
networks around the world, such as the Olympia, Tacoma, and Glasgow
Solidarity Networks. We are offering support and training to new groups
whenever we can. We have also been in contact with workers' centres, which
have some similarities to SeaSol, such as the Lansing Workers Center, and
are interested in learning more about the advantages and differences with
this kind of organising.

Personally, I've been trying to convince anarchist groups and individuals
of the usefulness of setting up solidarity networks...

How open is SeaSol with their politics? Are you openly anarchist?
As an individual member I'm openly anarchist within SeaSol (as are many
others). SeaSol isn't an anarchist organisation, but it is based on
principles of mutual aid, direct action and direct democracy. While all
the founding members were anarchist or close to it, the majority of the
membership aren't necessarily. SeaSol is however an environment where
almost everyone is open to anarchist ideas, because they are a logical
extension of what we are doing - fighting together against bosses and
landlords, planning things collectively, pooling our resources, realising
that we have power together.

What have you learned from your experiences in the group?
Many things. I know that in any future job I would be far more confident
in fighting back against management. I feel more able to organise at work,
when I wouldn't really have known where to start before. It has been very
satisfying to apply anarchist ideas of direct action and solidarity and
see them work effectively. I've learnt how to view things tactically and
strategically. I've learnt how to investigate and research targets, how to
communicate better and build links with people. I've tasted collective
power. I think it's been quite an empowering experience for many of us in
SeaSol, and I hope it continues...

What lessons do you think other workers can take from your group?
That even in these times of defeat and economic depression it's still
quite feasible to fight back and win. That anarchist ideas work in real
life. That collective direct action around small issues is an effective
starting point for further struggle...

Do you have a favourite anecdote or memory related to the organisation?
It's been amusing to see bosses' anguish when things don't go their way.
They are often quite disappointed when a quick call to the police doesn't
result in our disappearance, since we are doing nothing illegal. I like
seeing the look of confusion and panic when a large group of people
suddenly invades their private space. One particularly funny memory is
being threatened with a baseball bat by a hotel owner's minion, who then
decided to call the police on us. He ended up admitting intent to assault
with a deadly weapon to the police...

If anyone has further questions please feel free to ask below.

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