There is a crucial difference between pulling “stunts” on the boss, and deploying tactics: only the latter mobilizes collective power. 

There’s a moment in the IWW organizer training when we describe the scenario of a workplace where, among other problems, the boss won’t turn the air conditioning on. It’s in the module on direct action, when we are getting participants to think about taking action on the job, alongside their coworkers. As a trainer, I’ve often heard participants suggest just switching on the AC. Problem solved, right?

Of course, it’s not that simple. After all, the boss can simply switch it back off, and even discipline whoever turned it on. Bringing about the necessary change – comfortable working conditions – requires mobilizing some collective power and deploying that against the boss.

As I like to put it, stunting on the boss is not the same thing as beating the boss. What you need is not to be cute or clever; what you need are tactics.

I will admit that I have succumbed to stunt-pulling in the past. I was in the midst of my first organizing campaign. This was at the first class departure lounge at the airport, run by a huge catering firm called Sodexo. A new boss had taken over. We convinced him that his office doubled as our break room. To underscore the point, I put a box of tampons and a full-length mirror in there, and my coworker (actually, my sister) and I ate lunch in there every day, on his desk. As a result, he let us use it, and left the door unlocked at all times.

We had liked our old boss, and we didn’t know what to make of this new one.  Rumor had it his dad or his uncle worked high up in the company.  We felt like we no longer had the buffer between us and the company that our old boss had been.  So we decided to unionize. We won an election, and we started to bargain a first contract. One of the things we wanted was paid sick days. I worked the opening shift, which meant that I got to work at 5:30 AM, well before the boss. Because I had access to the boss’s office, I had access to the company’s policy manuals. They actually stipulated that employees should get 6 paid sick days a year – which we currently didn’t. At 5:35 one morning, I grabbed the manuals, took them to the lounge’s business center, photocopied the pages on sick days, and stuffed the copies in my bag.

At the next bargaining session, I brought up this demand of ours. The lawyers and professional negotiators that the company had flown in, sitting on the other side of the table, said flatly that paid sick days weren’t possible; the company couldn’t afford it. Feeling like the hero of a movie, I pulled the pages from my bag, and slid them across the table. “Oh yeah?”

My boss turned a deep shade of red. The company lawyer and negotiator looked pissed. I knew my boss would be in trouble later. It felt great, that moment. But you know what? We didn’t get our paid sick days. The company refused to put that in the contract, and we voted to ratify it anyway. Sodexo wouldn’t even give us what was in their own company manuals, and stunting on them or embarrassing them about it at the bargaining table achieved nothing.  Winning paid sick days would have required building shop-floor power and applying pressure until they caved.

Not long ago, I heard another story of a stunt pulled in relation to a contract fight. It was totally different from mine, but it drove home the same lesson. Some workers had won an election, and they were bargaining their first collective agreement. One of the managers was actually friendly with them, and ideologically on their side – and he could afford to be, because he was quitting. On his way out the door, he took the workers’ contract proposal, and signed off on it on behalf of management. Then he quit.

Of course, this then ended up in front of the National Labour Relations Board, who had to decide whether there was any validity to the contract when it was ratified in this way on the employer side. This was a technical, legal question, and it was not answered over the next several weeks, at which point the company simply closed the shop in retaliation for the organizing effort. Shop closings are a worst-case scenario, and that may have happened here regardless. But the bottom line is that the stunt didn’t force the boss’s hand. (The NRLB later ruled the signing of the contract invalid.)

More recently, some IWW workers engaged in a solidarity union campaign at a small restaurant were talking about actions they could take to force the boss to pay a coworker some wages he had been shorted. Their first tactic was going to be a march on the boss, delivering their demand. They were brainstorming a second tactic. One of them suggested leaving the refrigerator door open when leaving for the night.

The workers were brainstorming these tactics in conversation with some IWW worker-organizers from the Stardust campaign.  The Stardusters gently suggested that the fridge idea wasn’t the best strategy: when you strike at the boss, the boss should know, and he should know exactly why. The restaurant workers’ idea – and there’s no reason to judge them for this; they were just at the beginning of their campaign, figuring things out – was more of a stunt than a tactic.

They later switched this out for a proper tactic, in their plans. They did their march. The boss said he would talk to the worker after close. When he did, everyone else stayed around too, to again underscore the point that they considered this injury to one to be an injury to all. The boss not only conceded, and gave the worker his wages, but apologized.