This story, from a small restaurant with majority IWW presence, describes some strategic mistakes that were made around a march on the boss. To me, the story has a particular significance: it is an example of the growing pains solidarity union organizing campaigns experience. Many manage to build a small workplace committee, and even take a few successful direct actions, but then stall out before ever becoming a full-blown, functioning solidarity union. This piece launches a new series called “Pushing Through,” which will reflect on those cases, and what the organizers involved think they could have done differently. — Ed.
Organizing at work is hard.
It requires consistent effort to motivate people, communicate wants and needs, agree on (and practice!) tactics, prepare for reprisals from the boss, and collect and mobilize people toward a better workplace.
This is the story of a day in the life of a small campaign. Workers in the shop, including myself, have organized around various issues and made some gains on the shop floor. We now have majority IWW membership.
Some of us have been meeting regularly for what we’ve affectionately termed “Sunday School,” during which we study modules from the IWW’s organizer training, discuss grievances and plans of action, and generally reinforce our commitment to each other and worker solidarity.
On the day I recount below, we won our very specific battle, but we also made some strategic mistakes that handed power to the boss and may have caused a schism amongst workers.
The shop, a small restaurant, is in a state that allows tipped workers to be paid a sub-minimum wage: $3.52 an hour. However, that wage only applies to tipped work. Non-tipped work must legally be paid the state’s minimum wage of $9.25 an hour.
The owner of the shop requires staff to show up for two deep-cleaning days each year: one in the spring and one in the fall.
Cleaning days happen on Sundays, before the restaurant opens at 3. This is very specifically non-tipped work.
One of our very first successful collective actions centered around our pay for spring cleaning day: the owner insisted he could pay us the sub-minimum tipped wage for cleaning. We orchestrated a march on the boss, and demanded he pay us the full minimum wage for non-tipped work, as required by law. We won our demand and presumed that fight was over.
However, we had to fight for fair and legally mandated wages all over again last week, during fall cleaning day.
Here is my account of our second yearly cleaning day, in which we made many mistakes but muddled through, and the lessons we can take away from the experience.
I’ve changed the names of workers and omitted the name of the restaurant for our protection.
In our small restaurant, we are essentially manager-less. Two of us, Steve and I, are paid a dollar premium for coordinating the schedule and ordering and stocking beer and wine, but we have no supervisory authority over our coworkers. Instead, my coworkers and I make decisions democratically. Any changes to schedule, policy, or side work are voted on. Most of the communication is done through an employee Facebook group.
The owner determined that fall cleaning day would be held on Sunday, 9/23, beginning at 11 am. Steve and I communicated this to workers via the Facebook group.
The Wednesday prior to cleaning day, I asked the owner if we would be signing in on a sheet instead of clocking in, and getting paid in cash (the time clock is automatically set to the lower wage). He said yes.
That Sunday I showed up at 11. As I was creating the sign-in sheet, I reconfirmed with the owner – he was paying us cash for today, we weren’t clocking in, right?
The owner responded: “Yes, $5 an hour, correct?”
I thought he was joking. He was not. He then assured me that Steve and I would be paid our dollar-per-hour premiums and insisted that he was only obligated to pay servers the sub-minimum tipped wage.
We never take on the owner one-on-one; he gets abusive and nothing gets accomplished. I decided I would wait for everyone else to show up and we’d tackle it then.
My co-worker Alice showed up first, then Steve – both IWW members. I explained to each of them what was going on and we agreed we wouldn’t be scrubbing things for $5 an hour, and we decided to wait for everyone else.
Joe had told us he was running late. We hadn’t heard from any of our other coworkers.
After some discussion, Alice, Steve and I agreed to do a march on the boss. At this point in the day we were 5 staff members short and starting to feel the time crunch, as we had a long list of cleaning to complete prior to the restaurant opening.
The owner was on the roof changing air filters, so we waited for him to come down.
After thirty minutes passed with no sign of him, we decided it made sense to reschedule cleaning for a day when everyone could make it and we could be guaranteed fair pay for our labor.
As we walked to the back of the restaurant to talk to the owner, Joe showed up.
Joe has his red card but has been unable to attend any of our Sunday IWW meetings. He has shown solidarity with us on other issues and espouses support for better working conditions.
However, when we explained to him that we were refusing to work for $5 an hour, he was very clearly uncomfortable with the situation. He explained that he didn’t do well with confrontation and wanted to just get to work and get it done.
Steve and I were only willing to work with the assurance that we were getting paid fair wages.
Alice still wanted reschedule the whole thing.
As we were discussing our various options and preferences, Joe took the initiative to call the owner (who was still on the roof) and bargain: he told the owner that Steve, Alice and I were refusing to work for server wage, and since there were only four of us, could he just pay us $10 an hour so we could get to work?
The owner was on speaker phone, his response was “I don’t care, just get it done.”
The call ended.
As the owner’s response was non-specific, we were conflicted about what to do next. Alice wanted assurance that she was getting paid and expressed that she was uncomfortable with the owner’s unclear response. Steve and I were willing to get to work and clarify wages when the owner showed up, with the understanding that we’d stop work without a promise of full pay. Joe assumed that “I don’t care” meant that the owner would definitely be paying us full pay and wanted to get cleaning.
Alice then decided to compose a text asking the owner to clarify that we were making the full minimum wage. She was going to include everyone present in the text, but accidentally only included Steve and the owner.
The owner never responded to the text. Instead, he found Alice in the kitchen and confronted her with what he’s referred to as his “management style” – yelling and hurling abuse until the worker acquiesces to whatever he demands. The owner berated Alice, interrupting her when she tried to speak, getting angrier and louder as Alice tried to explain to him that she just wanted clarification and deserved to know she was being paid a fair wage for her work.
The owner then attacked Joe, who instinctively retreated into defensive mode and told the owner he had shown up ready to work, that he didn’t care about pay and that it was the rest of us (Alice, Steve and I) who were refusing to work.
Eventually, after everyone involved was both angry and resentful, the owner clarified we were getting $10 an hour and cleaning day finally commenced.
We did it. We won fair wages.
However, we also made strategic mistakes along the way that the owner will be able to use against us in the future, and which we now must work through and address as a group.
Here’s where I think we went wrong, and lessons we can take from those mistakes:
I had asked the owner earlier in the week if we would be signing in and getting paid cash like last time. My mistake was not specifically clarifying that he was paying us full minimum non-tipped wage.
Use very specific language when engaging with the boss.
Make sure important conversations happen in front of witnesses.
Steve and I had posted about cleaning day in the Facebook group, but not everyone had gotten the message or understood. This resulted in only a few of us showing up, and those who came arrived sporadically.
This shows one disadvantage of the boss not using a manager and relying on Steve and I to schedule. Conceivably, the owner can appeal to a sense of resentment on the part of those of us who did show up, to foster division. He can also threaten or punish those of us who didn’t show up, even though he relies on us to manage ourselves.
Solidarity is important, and bosses can undermine this in unexpected ways.
We acted before our demand was agreed upon and clarified. We were still discussing what we should do when we let Joe call the owner. We allowed our sense of anxiety to rush us into action.
Even when acting “on the fly,” clarify a demand, coordinate a course of action, and discuss possible responses before moving on an issue, and make 100% sure everyone is on the same page.
Instead of a group of us marching on the boss in person, we allowed first Joe and then Alice to stick their necks out. Furthermore, Joe has not had the benefit of any of the IWW training that Steve, Alice, and I have had, and Alice is still relatively new and hasn’t had experience with the owner like Steve, Joe, and I have had.
We gave the owner targets, and he used them. He forced Alice into a yelling match about respect (tangential to our hard goal about wages) and forced Joe to defend himself by verbally separating himself from Steve, Alice, and me.
Training and roleplays are important.
Solidarity is power. In previous actions, we’ve always arranged things so that there was no obvious ringleader. By handling things as we did, we allowed two of the four of us to get targets painted on their backs.
Those of us who have been unable to attend meetings outside of work are less prepared and less committed to direct action. We need to bring more of our coworkers to “Sunday School.” However, even those of us who have been able to make it, who have trained and role-played, still need more education, more preparation, and definitely more organization. Building those skills is a continuous process.
The boss will always look for our weak spots, and will do everything he can to divide us.
After cleaning day, it was clear that we had two options: to allow what happened that day to undermine us as a group, or to redouble our efforts at organizing.
I’m happy to say we’ve decided to level up. I apologized to Alice and Joe for letting them take on the owner, and we debriefed cleaning day. Those of us attending Sunday School have created a plan for each of us to hold one-on-ones with other co-workers, both those in the IWW and out. We’ve moved Sunday School sessions to a day during the week when more people can make it. We’ve started outlining a plan to get our kitchen staff wages they can live on. We’re working together to create a formal committee, practice solidarity in everything we do, and continue to make our restaurant a better place to work.
In summary: to agitate, educate, inoculate, organize, and unionize is hard work. But we absolutely can do it.