The IWW Campaign at Star Tickets: Part I

This is the second entry in our “Anatomy of a Campaign” series.  We will be publishing it in two parts. What I love about Deirdre’s storytelling is the way it demonstrates how, in so many ways, work is our life: our social relationships, our mental health, our physical comfort, our personal safety, where we decide to live, and just our day-to-day existence. Part I lays out how Deirdre came to work at Star Tickets, and how and why workers decided to organize. Part II will talk in more detail about the campaign, the election, and bargaining. –Ed.

It’s been five years since I was “laid off” from my job at Star Tickets. I’ve been asked to write about my time organizing a union there and the NLRB election that we held and won, and so I’m finally making time to do writing that I’d been meaning to do so long ago. In preparation for this assignment, I spent time listening to the 9 hours of audio recordings I made while on the job. It was a practice I had gotten in the habit of, having learned it from my IWW union brother Cole. The recordings range from client calls to interactions with managers to documenting myself training my replacements. Any time a meeting would happen that I thought might be of interest later I would record using an app on my smartphone.

Listening to these recordings recalled so many of the emotions I felt at the time. Anger, fear, pain, frustration, vindication, courage, strength, joy… everything was at an 11. And in the time since, I’ve lost a fellow worker, Evelyn, the friend who started it all with me, and separated from my husband, Frederick, who worked at Star with me for all those years and obviously was a big part of the campaign. So, it’s been a real emotional trip down memory lane. I wish so much that I could run this by Evelyn, who passed away in January. I know she would have such insight to impart and it pisses me off so badly that we didn’t collaborate on this before we lost her.

Frederick isn’t his real name. I’ve changed most of the names in this story. I want to explain those that I haven’t changed. I want to give credit to Cole for all his work and those in the IWW who helped us start the Star Tickets Workers Union. And Evelyn, too, deserves to be honored and have her name attached to this story and her union activity can no longer hurt her future employment. The only other name I will leave untouched is Jack Krasula, the president of Star Tickets, Inc., who treated his employees with such contempt and cruelty I refuse to protect him. It was suggested to me, by someone who didn’t work there, that such time has passed that things may be different there now, and it’s true I do not know, but I have my experiences to guide me to the conclusion that this man believes he is owed a debt of gratitude for “supplying a job” to the people who support his extravagant lifestyle while he refuses to recognize that he causes their pain and suffering by paying them low wages and demonstrating no care at all for their conditions.

What strikes me most upon listening to those audio files for the first time in so long is how contentious things were after we went public. It felt like we were on a battleground daily. Even Larry, who was brand new — hired to replace Tim after he was fired — seemed to be walking on eggshells. Before he took his place on the opposite side of the bargaining table from us, that is.

How I came to work for Star Tickets

I worked for Star Tickets for almost a decade. I worked there before it was Star Tickets. It was Tickets Plus, Inc. when I was first hired, just out of college, in 1996. It was meant to be temporary. I was just figuring things out, because I was dealing with some mental health issues, and wasn’t allowed on campus because I’d missed a therapy appointment and hadn’t realized that I was required to be attending those appointments due to a public breakdown I’d had at the end of the previous semester. So when I came home for fall break, I was met with the news that I was not going to be allowed to return after break. Just like that, my college career ended and I found myself without a degree, with 3 years of college debt, and now, stuck living in a dysfunctional family situation I desperately wanted to escape. When a family friend, Jane, set me up with an interview for a job selling tickets at a kiosk within our local supermarket chain, Meijer, I was eager to take the opportunity.

The family friend connection is interesting, because Jane went on to be an advocate for me, from within the upper management at Star, and personally as a reference throughout my career. [Editor’s note: I asked Deirdre what role Jane played after the union went public, and she had this to say: “She didn’t work there anymore by that time. I’m trying to remember if she was fired (I think she was) but whenever someone was let go it was so secret and quick and we just got fed pizza the next day… Usually it was because they hadn’t brought in enough business, because they were in sales. Jane had supportive things to say about the union online, and so did some other upper management who had been let go.”] At the time, Jane worked as the business manager for Civic Theatre, which is where I basically grew up, as the daughter of the technical director. My dad started working there when I was born, and worked for almost 40 years in that position. He often joked that his kids knew that if they wanted to spend time with their dad they would need to volunteer to help build the sets, and it’s pretty much true. Each of his four kids now works in technical theater to some extent because it’s what we know and love. Actually, when I started at Tickets Plus, I was also working for the stagehands’ union as well, but I found these jobs mutually exclusive after a time and I chose the path of stability, while my sisters decided to stick it out with the union, working their way up through times of complete uncertainty about when they would have work next. Ticketing was regular. And the company was starting to take notice of my abilities, giving me more responsibilities. When a position opened up to work in the lobby of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, for Tickets Plus, I was encouraged to apply, and then blown away when offered my first yearly salary.

I loved to work as the Box Office Manager for Civic. I had the tiny box to myself, at first, and then one other person after a time, but we enjoyed decorating the inside of the walls where only we could see. I loved getting to know the customers and their idiosyncrasies. I enjoyed the challenges of ticketing and found that it was a job at which I could excel. Handling money, customer concerns and a mix of software glitches was a special combination to which I seemed to be well-suited. But I wasn’t prepared for the holdup. We were ticketing for concerts at the VanAndel arena, and there had been a big “on-sale” on a Saturday morning. I loved these and treated them like events, coming in early to see the customers who had camped out the night before to be first in line for tickets to see their favorite artist. It was a new thing for our smallish town to have a big venue that would host these acts. I don’t recall who had gone on sale that day. Anyway, sales had died down and I think I was even doing a load of laundry, as I did sometimes (I wasn’t the only theater brat to take advantage of the utilities) but I know there was a rehearsal going on in the auditorium and I was washing the windows of the box office from the lobby side when the young man walked in, carrying a t-shirt. I asked him how I could help and he asked if there were tickets left to see Janet Jackson. They’d been on sale for a while, so I knew the locations of the available seats by heart and I showed him on the seating chart, and told him the price of each. I was still standing next to him, when suddenly there was a knife in my face and his face turned cruel. “Put your hands behind your back,” he said, and he tied them with the t-shirt. He pushed me to the floor inside the box office and opened the cash drawer. I had made a drop earlier and put money in the safe and he asked me where the rest was but I just told him that was all there was, because I wanted him to leave. He told me he’d be watching me and if I called the cops he’d come back. I waited until I was sure he was gone and then I made my way to the auditorium where I found someone to untie me. They called the police, who took me on a tour of the low-income housing downtown to search for the suspect. They found a knife in the elevator there, which I could not identify. I was pretty traumatized by the incident, and went home and drank an entire fifth of cheap alcohol. I did work there a while longer, but when a boyfriend suggested going on a tour with a traveling laser arena, I was ready for a new adventure.

So I took about a four-year hiatus, during which Tickets Plus merged with a company from Austin, Texas and changed to Star Tickets Plus. My friend, Frederick, worked there during this time, and would later become my husband. After things at Kramer Entertainment didn’t work out for me, I moved with Frederick to South Bend to try to go back to school, where we both worked for another call center called Woodwind & Brasswind. When we decided to get married, we moved back to Grand Rapids, and after he went back to Star Tickets I was quick to follow him back, too. This was 2003, and I started back as a Call Center Representative, while Frederick was a Call Center Supervisor. I’d been a supervisor before, too, in the call center on the weekends while the Box Office was closed, so I was pretty sure I was gonna get back there, and sure enough, it didn’t take long. And it didn’t take long again before I was working in Client Services, and then, because I was working so much overtime, I was forced to go on salary. I tried to negotiate a higher salary because duh, but they’d only budge so far and told me to take it or leave it. Still, I couldn’t foresee that eventually I’d end up working sometimes as many as 80 hours a week just to keep up with my assigned workload.

The beginnings of the campaign

In 2010, Evelyn and I were taking a class studying The People’s History of the United States, where we were introduced to Cole from the IWW, and she decided we ought to try this union thing. Of course I told my husband, and Evelyn told her sister, Ariel, and the next person we both agreed we should approach was Antonio. Turns out Antonio had been researching the IWW on his own, just because he was a forward-thinking radical guy. We organized slowly, being very careful to keep our hand close. Betty, Bradley and Suzy were brought on board next. We weren’t sure we could trust Suzy, I think mostly because she was religious, and in the political climate of West Michigan religiosity equates to conservatism so we thought, “anti-union.” Land of the Devos family, after all. She turned out to be one of the most down.

The seed of the campaign was ideological. We believed that the inequality that exists within the boss/employee dynamic is inherently wrong and can be corrected with collective action. From there, we looked at our conditions and held brainstorming sessions, where we would explore the things we wished we could change about the job. We underwent the Organizer Training with the IWW, and we chose winnable grievances to campaign around. Chairs were at the top of the list. I had developed a condition that meant I couldn’t sit without unbearable pain. Ariel was also having a hard time after they started working as a supervisor and had to work more hours; they developed a condition in their arm that they could only attribute to sitting in a poor ergonomic workstation. Frederick was also in pain all the time. The chairs were simply terribly uncomfortable and had never been updated in the entire history of the company. We thought it was about time. We had run some sales reports and seen the numbers and realized that things didn’t need to be the way they were. We thought there was absolutely wiggle room in those numbers for things like new equipment every once in a while. Raises, every once in a while. People not working 24/7. From our figures, it looked like we were bringing in around 3 million a year. Any way you slice that, in a company of under 20 employees, we figured we were owed a little more.

We circulated a petition, which all but two workers signed, asking for ergonomically correct chairs, adequate scheduling, and for management to constructively address performance issues before handing out discipline. This made management furious. They instituted monthly meetings with the call center, and split our unit into call center, client services and IT departments, to keep us further segmented. They did give us new chairs several months later, but they were just as uncomfortable.

It was just a fully contentious atmosphere. At one point the sales manager threatened to kill call center representatives who used a phrase he didn’t like on the phone. Frederick ended up going on health leave because he was experiencing panic attacks so frequently, and when he sought medical treatment he was told that he was in real danger of having a heart attack. He had also been diagnosed with PTSD from being harassed on the job.

But we also did some mutual aid, helping each other out with childcare and raising emergency funds for a coworker who was facing foreclosure. I found a bag of groceries in my office one evening, and I never did find out who they were from, but certainly they came from a fellow worker.

After the election, the firings started. Tim was fired, even though he wasn’t a part of the union. It seemed that they wanted to clean house and start over with all new staff and they didn’t take time to figure out who was involved in the union campaign. We filed a ULP on Tim’s behalf but he was so fed up with all the crazy crap he had witnessed that he had been desperately seeking a way out anyway so was not interested in pursuing reinstatement, and he was reluctant to align himself too closely with us for his own protection, in looking for future jobs. The day he was fired I recorded myself in the office crying because I realized that with Michelle out on maternity leave, Ariel out on health leave, and Tim fired, I was now in charge of all 75 clients. So our ULP claimed that they fired Tim to place further pressure on me.

Soon I was so fed up I couldn’t cover my anger any longer. When a manager asked if I was in the middle of something I just blew a raspberry. I mean, I was swimming in a pile of shit. What wasn’t I in the middle of? I was in the middle of requests from 75 clients, and they should all be handled “ASAP.” That was why Tim was supposedly fired: for putting something on the back burner that should have been taken care of “immediately.” It was completely outrageous. None of us could figure out their strategy, which in hindsight appears to have been just to break us, use us up, and if we complained, make us go away. To wipe the slate clean and start with new staff as much as possible. It was just too much.

After all the years of putting up with whatever bullshit they would throw at us for a paycheck, we organized, but they actually had more up their sleeves. There was no end to their cruelty, and no limit to how far they would go to get back at us for making them look bad for trying to organize a union…