My Journey to the IWW

By Joe Costello

I am a 33 years old, and I have had many negative experiences under capitalism. My existence as a proletarian has shaped me in many ways; living under oppressive conditions changes a person in ways that they don’t normally think about, from interpersonal relationships to developing a social life and especially child rearing. The damage that this economic system and the whole of class society has caused is almost incalculable. Capitalism is parasitic and exploitative in nature. In my experience, the effects of living under a system that places priority on money and profit over human life can produce unforeseen and lasting consequences.

I am subsisting on meager wages and am just one paycheck away from outright destitution. Most people I know are making less than $15/hr. There are exceptions I know, but what I see is a wage decline. Ten years ago I was making $15/hr. I work three jobs right now. If I lose my any of my jobs, then it’s pretty much hopeless. This is terrifying.  

The struggle to survive with little or no money is hard enough without the social stigma attached to it. In my family, that stigma was damaging for many people involved. There is a common conception that people who have fallen on hard times have only themselves to blame and they should pick themselves up by their so-called “bootstraps.” The stigma gets worse when you find yourself continually impoverished.

What I saw around me was a decadent class of liberal professionals who were gentrifying our town and driving us working-class people out. Learning about the whole labor history of the United States, it really jump-started my awareness and I began taking interest in anarchism and communism. I began to develop my understanding about why the world was the way it was. Now, after discovering Marxism-Leninism, I am politically rejuvenated and my need to engage in conscious class struggle is something I can no longer ignore. The IWW is a fundamental tool in engaging in positive struggle and I am proud to be a member.

I first entered the working world when I was in high school. I was brought up to have a strong work ethic and I always took work seriously. But, this wasn’t just a hobby or an activity to pass the time or for me to gain work experience. My family needed the money. If my brothers and I didn’t work, I don’t think we could have survived. Even with our extra income, it was still tough. That work was only in the winter. In 2003, I began to work in Alaska as a seaman. From then on, mostly every summer I was working up in Alaska. I wanted to be home. I hated being up there. I missed my friends and I wanted a social life.

I did that kind of work for about 10 years. Looking back, it was a bad career choice. The hours were long, it was dangerous, the pay was not good, and I had no job security. Then, when I would come home, I would have to start looking for work again. I went to work at a shipyard, and that was a nasty job. We built one tugboat and I was laid off. Then I got another job through the union at another shipyard. Real good guys my co-workers were, but I was laid off again.

Then a few of my friends helped me get into the union. I began working commercial construction with my buddies and they started me at journeyman wages even though I was an apprentice. So I told my supervisor I was being overpaid. I didn’t feel right about being paid for skills I did not have. A few days later the boss came down and ordered me to pay back the money. I refused. So they fired me. My union rep didn’t support me. I continued to work in commercial construction until the crash of 2008 happened. I was working another construction job and one day, the boss laid off the whole jobsite. No more money coming in, he said, and the investors pulled all their money.

The struggle never ended. It just changed from year to year. I was still somewhat involved in commercial fishing and was continuing to try and find a job that I enjoyed and that paid enough for me to live.

That didn’t happen. Rental prices in the Northwest were steadily increasing, even in the worst parts of town. Hard to survive. In the winter of 2011 my wife and I found out she was pregnant. No savings, no house, not even a reliable vehicle. The house we were living in had black mold, lead paint, and there was a galvanizing plant and an asphalt production facility across the highway. We had to get out of there. By the time my son was ready to be born, I was flying home from Alaska and only a week later she was ready to have the baby. We continued to live in that house for another year because we couldn’t find anything we could afford. So we got on a low-income housing list back where I grew up and we’ve been here ever since.

All the bad shit is still here. And it’s getting worse. The economy is bad, the inequality is bad. The drug problem is bad. And most people don’t think about the working poor, but every Wednesday that food bank is packed. We are here. We exist. We aren’t going away. The problems of capitalism aren’t going away.

Capitalism relies on exploitation of people. America, as an empire, depends on exploitation to function. Will we see a real revolution or will the proletariat be fooled again by shiny promises of achieving the so called “American dream?” Michael Parenti speaks to the fallacies of the American social order: “In societies that worship money and success, the losers become objects of scorn. Those who work the hardest for the least are called lazy. Those forced to live in substandard housing are thought to be the authors of substandard lives.”

A version of this essay was originally published on planningbeyondcapitalism.org. The full-length essay is available there.

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