Malco, an HVAC technician, describes how his company has fended off organizing efforts since a failed union campaign 20 years ago.
I work for a large HVAC-R mechanical contractor. I’m a non-unionized commercial service technician in a heavily unionized trade. Nearly everything about my workplace is structured with one thing in mind: keep the unions out. This includes having every trade and department based out of one shop, even when there is a need for them to have their own. This is so the union cannot get in and “flip” one department. It also includes things like a faux grievance committee for commercial installers, regular leadership meetings with invited field staff, and an annual survey on employee morale.
As best I can tell from older and former coworkers, these surveys first came into play at the company 20 years ago, following a bitter lost union drive. Within our company, there are many different departments, composed of several different building trades, which are further broken down by their area of work (residential, commercial, install, service, etc.). The commercial side of the company (consisting of 2 departments: commercial service and commercial install) led the failed union drive and has since been consistent in scoring the lowest in satisfaction on the survey. This has led to the commercial side often being regarded as the “black sheep” of the company. The irony of the low scores on the survey is that commercial techs and installers have greater autonomy or bargaining power, because they are either the last to have a hated new policy implemented in their departments, or they are the reason why a company policy (like putting cameras in our vans) is tanked entirely.
Commercial techs and mechanics are the most in-demand throughout the industry. Their “hard” skill set is more diverse, the cost of training of mid- or even entry-level workers is exponentially higher, and coupled with aggressive head-hunting from both the union and non-union shops amidst a massive labor shortage in the trade, worker mobility is nearly unparalleled to that of any other industry. So while organized workers is what ownership fears most, they cannot afford to lose these workers, who possess a very specific skill set. This dynamic gives workers in the commercial departments a sense of security and individual power that most workers do not have.
Yet whatever real or imagined power workers in the commercial departments may have individually, that is no match for a boss who is aggressively seeking to expand at the expense of workers already stretched thin. Our benefits are still garbage for the industry standard, we are increasingly monitored, and we remain chronically understaffed. The latter is exacerbated by an invasive hiring process and a hair follicle drug test that is universally hated.
The result is that there is no 40-hour work week. Winter’s average is between 48 to 56 hours a week, and the summer average is between 54 and 65. Ownership boasts about this workload compared to that of the union workers, where layoffs are regular and sometimes long. The guaranteed hours are both the source of much agitation amongst co-workers, but also the driving force for workers not going to the union. When forced to choose between too much work and no real benefits, or benefits but not enough work, most tend to stick with the devil they know.
You don’t know until you ask
While I like the work I do, the hours do get to me. When I was new to the service department, I thought that this is just the side of the trade I chose to get into, and if I don’t like it, it’s because I’m not cut out for it. Worse still, I assumed that the people I work with were content with the way things were. On account of this, I struggled with whether my co-workers were organizable. All the usual justifications went through my head: it’s impossible because they have better pay than other workers, because they have more mobility than other workers, because trades people are more politically conservative, because they, unlike myself, have all drunk the company Kool-Aid, etc.
But then things began to snowball fast around me. Typically, there are a couple slow months at the beginning of both fall and spring. The downtime in these months is vital for people to recuperate from working long hours exposed to the weather extremes of both summer and winter. A month or two in fall and/or spring is the HVAC tech’s summer. It is when they take time to spend with their family, or to do anything other than work. However, this last year it did not happen. A number of mid- and senior-level techs left to join the union, leaving us even more understaffed than we were before. Instead of our department taking a pause to recuperate from our losses, the commercial service sales team more than doubled our list of service contracts, creating twice the workload with half the labor. Because of this, everyone was nearing a breaking point. Talk became more aggressive and my coworkers began intentionally neglecting and/or refusing work. We refer to this as being in “‘fuck-it’ mode.” In hindsight, my workplace was teetering on the edge of becoming a “hot shop” but at the time, I, a self-proclaimed labor militant, was a passive observer.
Then the results for the company-wide survey came in, and my department was pegged as low as it could possibly be. I boycotted the survey on principle, which amounted to nothing because I did not share this with others. Nor did I attempt to talk to people about how they felt about their working conditions at a time when the boss was doing precisely that. The result was that my boss knew the extent of my co-workers’ dissatisfaction better than I did.
After the results came in, I attended a Super Bowl party with some co-workers. The conversation turned to work and without any prodding, one of the guys who is an organic leader spoke up and said, “We should strike.” Completely taken back and at a loss for words, I gave a not-so-enthusiastic “I’m down.” Neither of us knowing what to follow up with, the conversation shifted and that was the last of it.
The results of the survey and the atmosphere of dissatisfaction at work were like a shot of adrenaline to my morale as an organizer, but before I could act on it, the moment was gone. Literally in a matter of days, management was working to “address” issues — instead of us building an autonomous workplace committee. Yet this should come as no surprise as the intent of “anonymous” company surveys is a proactive measure of anti-union organizing.
The harm of the olive branch
After the survey, raises and quasi-promotions were handed out to a few people, me being one of them. In an effort to make immediate changes to improve morale, focus groups were set up to address departmental issues. Along with 5 other techs from the field, I was invited to be part of a focus group to address the on-call schedule.
I thought, uncritically, that here was a thing that I and others could do, during a small window when upper management was being receptive. The alleged intention behind the focus groups was to relay input on the new schedule to management. However, before anything could be brought from the field, upper management gave us our new schedule.
Management was immediately confronted by workers over the process of how the new schedule was decided. Even more than the schedule itself, the issue became them not consulting the field staff beforehand, and their refusal to put it to a vote. The demand for department changes to be first put to a rank-and-file vote is a pretty radical demand, especially for a non-unionized workplace. What began as an issue over working conditions blew up to the much larger issue of power and the lack thereof.
The most forceful challenger to how the on-call schedule was decided was a worker that I had never really spoken to before. All that I knew about him was that he was someone who had almost left the company in the last exodus to the union, but didn’t because he felt that unions “were too political and liberal.” Yet here he was demanding democracy from the shop floor. Speaking to him after this all went down, I found out that he had gone through the same cycle over and over again: trying to make things in the department better, and then becoming burnt out on even trying.
Solidarity and the witch hunt
At the same time as ownership was handing out raises and quasi-promotions and supposedly making improvements, they were investigating the “cancer” in the company — the attitudes of workers in my department. I and others were asked “what are people saying out there?”
To this end, a second focus group was created to help draft a second survey. In hindsight, the goal of both focus groups was to get workers to buy back into the company, and create a false sense of inclusion. Like the first focus group, there was no real opportunity for input.
The second survey was largely an attempt to redirect hostilities towards office staff that play various supporting roles to the field techs (dispatch, coordinators, etc.). The survey named not just middle management, but field supervisors, trainers and lead techs, playing into existing divisions and power struggles.
A number of people, including myself, felt that we had to go to bat for the people named. The night the survey was sent out, I began calling coworkers to ask how they felt about it, followed by more phone calls and face-to-face conversations the following day. Some of those I am closest to supported the survey (they supported “setting the record straight once and for all” on who puts in the “real” work), which was discouraging. But a few people had already decided on their own that they were going to stack the survey with positives in defense of their co-workers, and to get our department out from under the microscope. Myself and a handful of others decided to do the same.
This outreach provided me with a unique opportunity to build new relationships with people that I never worked with, including those in different cities. I was definitely stepping out of my comfort zone, but once I did, I learned so much about where people were at. We talked candidly about what the real issues are and why the survey even exists.
In the end, no internal “cancer” was discovered and blame was kept on ownership. Most notable were the results for dispatchers, whose job is to assign work, so they are always the first axe that techs like to grind. They did not score low on the survey. The general sentiment was that they too are understaffed and doing the best they can.
The greatest achievement after the survey was breaking out of our isolation and fear. As commercial service techs, we often feel as though we are stranded on an island. We go days and sometimes even weeks without working with anyone. However, once the silence was broken, as many as 4 or 5 guys would meet up for two- or three-hour lunches, multiple times a week. We realized that we all have the exact same issues and that we are all feeling the burnout.
These conversations culminated in an attempt to form a small committee. Five of us, from three different cities, met up in person after the bi-annual company-wide meeting. We drove to Dunkin’ Donuts and hid our van in the back parking lot so that we couldn’t be seen from the road. We agreed to push for raises for the techs making substantially less than they should be. Additionally, we agreed to begin building a culture of solidarity on the job. Concretely this meant techs going on their own initiative to the smaller branches to help alleviate the workload.
The formation of the committee was relatively effortless. Unfortunately, so was its fading out of existence. After the first meeting, there wasn’t another. There wasn’t the necessary follow-through. Ultimately, no demands were made of ownership.
As much as I would love to leave this piece on a positive note, the reality is that the organizing that occurred was a response to a momentum which we did not direct. Our shop grew hot in response to the actions of the boss, and yet nothing came of it. A committee was formed but failed to take root. Workers that could have populated it left the company all together.
After the dust around the survey settled, our annual performance reviews were scheduled. While some raise is guaranteed, it’s usually a small percentage, maybe amounting to a dollar, or if you’re really lucky and on the lower end of the pay spectrum, two dollars. This time, everyone got substantial raises — between three to five dollars. While some may consider this a win, I don’t. People came out of that period of agitation attempting to address the issue of compensation on their own, which is precisely what the employee review process is designed to do — to neutralize a collective response. It also is more cost-effective to raise wages than to improve benefits, training and our overall working conditions.
Also, new interpersonal fault lines have been drawn on account of management having restructured the department, promoting lead techs to field supervisors, and giving dispatch more managerial powers, such as approving time off. Work is starting to be scheduled towards immediately dispatching one call after another until the board is clear, which has long been implemented in the residential department but pushed back against by the commercial side. Incremental changes that increase their micro-management over our working lives continue, with hardly a whimper of dissent.
Last October I attended the IWW Organizer Training 101. Having taken it as nothing more than a “pretty good guideline,” as opposed to something that has been forged through trial and error over the course of struggle, I painfully proceeded to make every fundamental mistake that the OT warns against: having one-on-ones in bars, dropping the “union” bomb, assuming you know others’ issues, etc. Now I find it to provide so much insight in terms of how things went so wrong. The OT 101 stresses the value of a slow and intentional build-up of the committee, via social mapping, and one-on-one conversations using the AEIOU guideline (agitate, educate, inoculate, organize and unionize). In this instance, almost none of this happened, because the effort was reactive to a momentum that we did not create and whose positive aspects we could not sustain. Essentially what happened was loads of agitation (by management), no real education or inoculation to fend off the carrots they handed out, followed by efforts to organize falling flat as soon as they began. We surrendered the momentum to the spontaneity of the moment and as such, we were out-organized.
My workplace, like many workplaces out there, is actively and continuously organizing against its workers. In 1998, my employer testified before Congress in favor of a bill to ban the practice of salting. The bill never became law, but the company has been waging an unrelenting anti-union campaign for at least 20 years.
In this latest instance, we were defeated, our solidarity was broken and our leash at work continues to grow shorter and shorter. But tomorrow is a good day to start again.