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Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Madison Branch Launches Campaign To Organize Downtown Workers!

On April 22nd, Earth Day, Madison area union activists are launching a union organizing drive targeting restaurant and service workers employed on State Street and downtown Madison with the help of internationally acclaimed musicians, David Rovics and Alistair Hulett.

Officially titled, the Madison Downtown Workers Union (MDWU), the organizing drive is an effort to unite thousands of workers in hundreds of workplaces -- taverns, restaurants, cafes and retails shops -- across the city. IWW members believe that in building a union, workers will gain the power to improve their wages, benefits and working conditions. Unlike traditional unions, the IWW seeks to organize cooks, wait staff, dishwashers, bus persons, bartenders and baristas, shop clerks and others across multiple shops and job positions into One Big Union.

"We've been active in Madison for a number of decades, and have built the union up over the years to where, after many years of thought and planning, we've decided to go ahead with the organizing drive" said IWW organizer Ron Kaminkow. "The union currently is involved in at least two other such drives -- one in Montpelier, Vermont and the other in Philadelphia."

Known as "non-majority unions" and "corridor campaigns', this IWW effort breaks with traditional mainstream union tactics and strategy. Rather than rely solely on the National Labor Relations Board, bargaining units, certification elections, contracts and formal bargaining sessions, arbitration, mediation, etc., the Madison Downtown Workers Union will focus on the direct action of the workforce itself. Organizers are encouraging all downtown Madison workers to play a role in building and developing the union.

"This is a really exciting campaign for us, it is the largest of its kind in the country and it's a great opportunity right now, especially in light of the organizing going on in the Latino community that makes up a significant portion of the workers behind the scenes downtown." said organizer Amy Mondloch. "We are really happy to have the chance to open the campaign with a couple of internationally known musicians. Alistair and David both have a fabulous way of carrying the stories of the working class to the world in their music."

Hayley Spohn, a member of the Madison Downtown Workers Union explained the significance of the kick-off, "We chose to "go public" with the campaign now to remember and connect with the victory of thousands of textile strikers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, during the spring of 1912. Known as the Bread and Roses Strike, some twenty-five thousand strikers, representing 15 nationalities and speaking a dozen different languages, came together from dozens of workplaces to demand better wages and working conditions in the various mills of Lawrence."

Organizers are hoping that Madison workers will fight for "bread" but roses too! -- That is to say, not only for better material conditions, but for beauty, dignity, meaningfulness and democracy in the workplace.

UW student and downtown worker, Vera Varlamov expressed the concerns of many workers in the downtown as her reason to become involved in the union "I have worked in various service industries in the downtown area and know from personal experience the hazards and problems that can arise in the workplace. It is sad but true that the average hourly, even if slightly over the minimum wage of $5.25, does not provide nearly enough income to attend classes and subside on in the downtown area. There is no way that I would be able to financially or physically afford to work enough hours to support myself and attend school full-time, which is unfair, since I am here to attend school full-time, not work a 40 hour week and take part-time classes."

Anders Irland, who works at Ians Pizza and is also involved in the MDWU has a unique perspective as an employee of a locally owned company that he perceives as supportive of its workers, but he still believes the union is necessary. "I believe it is important for people to get involved with the Madison Downtown Workers Union, even if their work experience in Madison is as positive as mine. It is more than the assurance of good pay, but also the chance to improve the overall quality of life for countless people. Regardless of class, age or any other factor, every person who contributes their part to society deserves to be treated with respect and gratitude. If we desire to live in a true democratic society, every person should be given an equal opportunity to thrive, and this would be an enormous, well-deserved boost for the middle and lower classes.

Hayley Spohn spoke of the challenges that downtown workers face; low wages, no benefits, discrimination. She explained, "Many of these things we simply cannot achieve alone. But together, united into a strong union, we have the potential to affect change in our workplaces and in our city."