Build A Committee Beyond Your Subculture

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Jason Fults talks about his experience  organizing with the IWW at Ward’s Grocery in Gainesville, FL in 2008.  Interview by Marianne Garneau.

How did you start working at Ward’s?

I was moving to Gainesville, and I was a member of IWW, and somebody put in touch with a wobbly who was here. His name was Joe. Joe and I sat down and had a beer, and he said, “Hey, if you’re looking for a job, why don’t you come salt the grocery store?” And I said, sure. I went there specifically as a salt.

What was your job?

Both Joe and I worked in the natural foods department, so we were stocking shelves, helping customers…

Natural foods was a sub-section within the grocery store?

Yeah, and we really were kind of our own kind of isolated subculture, our own operation, basically. Even though we were right there in the middle of the store with everyone else.

How many workers were there at this grocery overall?

Probably 40 to 50.

What were working conditions like?

They actually weren’t bad in our particular department. The pay was shit, but it was pretty chill. The manager would buy us pizza once a month. If somebody needed time off because they were juggling different jobs, it was easy to get your scheduled arranged how you wanted it, or time off. So just aside from the regular “no pay, no benefits, no job security” kind of thing that we’re all used to, it wasn’t a bad gig.

The only real thing that anybody worried about was that it was a family-owned grocery, and the owners were these country-ass Republican types, so everyone made an effort to stay away from them and not really engage with them very much. There was a story – this was before I got there – there was an African-American clerk in our department who had worn an Obama stocking cap to work one day and they found a reason to let him go.

That was a preview of the kind of behavior that ended up playing out in the course of our campaign.

So how did the campaign start? I know it predated you if you salted in…

No actually, that was kind of the start of the campaign. Because up to that point, you had this this one dude, who was a wobbly, but wasn’t really involved in any organizing. He wanted to organize there, but he didn’t have any co-conspirators in the workplace, and it wasn’t a hot shop, so he was like, “why don’t you come work with me and we will organize a union?” That was probably mistake number one. There just wasn’t really any kind of internal demand, it was just two guys who had a fire for organizing and wanted to organize their workplace regardless of how their coworkers felt.

How did you guys organize?

We started agitating, talking to coworkers. Once you really start talking to people, people have complaints: not getting sick leave, not getting enough hours, not getting a living wage, things like that. We slowly started doing one-on-ones and building an organizing committee.

Initially our idea was to do wall-to-wall – to organize the entire store. So we did mapping of the store, who were the leaders in the different departments: the meat department, the produce department, the grocery section, the cashiers / the front-end – but of course our nucleus was in natural foods. That was all these young hipster kind of folks, liberal-minded people, and we thought “that’ll be our core and then we’ll branch out from there.”

We had close to 20 people employed just in natural foods. At the height of things, we probably had about 6 or 8 people who were actively part of the organizing committee – they would come to meetings and stuff like that.

There was a subcultural affinity among the folks who worked in natural foods and you were relying on those subcultural affinities as you were organizing?

Yeah, definitely, because the idea was “these are all pretty liberal-minded people, and they will support this kind of thing.” And we thought if that’s our base and we lead, the rest of the folks in the store will come along and support us and get involved. That kind of foolishness.

At some point it just became apparent to us that we were not going to be successful with the entire store, and so rather than just accepting that and saying “Okay this is going to be a much longer struggle than we thought,” we just kind of decided to move ahead with our own department, hoping we could make some inroads there, and set an example that the rest of the folks could follow.

Why didn’t you think that you were going to be successful with the entire store?

Just from the one-on-ones that we were having. Our department was really just insular. People hung out together, partied together, people in our department dated, but there was very little real interaction or mixing with people in the other departments outside of work. We would have these organizing committee meetings and be like, “Do you know anybody in front end we can talk to?” and it would just be crickets. “Does anyone know these guys over in produce?” And there was just silence.

So then you’ve got this situation where these random-ass people that you work with are like, “Hey can we get together with you for a beer after work to talk?” and then, you know, people get weirded out. Because especially when you get together and you want to talk about forming a union and it’s the first time you’ve ever hung out together, or had a conversation outside of work, and they don’t know you.

And the culture was just very different outside of our department, and so the people we were talking to were just… not feeling it, or were very lukewarm, or were like, “Well, let me see what happens with you guys.” And not willing to stick their neck out and get involved.

So, ten years on, what advice would you give about the awkwardness of branching outside your own department and subculture at work and reaching out to those folks who don’t resemble you or that you don’t already have a connection with? Because organizers do have to do that.

We should have just taken the time to build those relationships and actually have a couple conversations with people before we talked union. We were doing a good job of that in our department. We would have regular organizing committee meetings, we would even have parties and really make a point to bring people together and have a good time together and build a relationship within our department, but it was just culturally very different, a lot of the folks we didn’t work with, and it wasn’t the kind of people where you were going to be like, “Hey come over to my house for a party Friday night” or whatever. And so we just didn’t take the time, the real time and work of building those relationships with those folks that were not like us and that we didn’t interact with on a regular basis.

And when you say “not like us,” were there racial differences? Age differences?

All of the above.

We actually petitioned the NLRB at one point to let us be considered our own bargaining unit within the grocery store, because that was our only last-ditch hope that we could actually win a union. And there is some precedent for that – you’ve got the meat departments, the butchers, are considered their own bargaining unit in some places, so we were trying to use that precedent, but the NLRB was not hearing that. So ultimately it was laid down that it was either the entire store or nothing. And we were dead in the water at that point because we just didn’t have an inclusive organizing committee that included people from other parts of the store.

When did that happen in the course of the campaign – petitioning the NLRB?

It was kind of precipitated by some bullshit that the boss did. We made the mistake of going public too soon. We tried to take action as a group within natural foods rather than store-wide. That alerted the bosses, they were able to really easily target who the ringleader was, they came up with some bullshit pretense to fire him, and then the entire campaign collapsed around “we have to get this guy his job back.” The whole thing came to be about getting Joe his job back. And at that point, anyone who was even remotely curious about what we were doing was like, “Oh I’m not touching that with a ten-foot pole cuz that dude just got fired.” And it was heinous, too: they fired him for stealing, which was not even true, so not only was he fired, but he was made a really shitty example of by shaming him.

What action did you take?

We did a petition that said “hey, these are the changes that we want to improve our situation here.” Probably 18 out of the 20 natural foods employees signed off on it. So within our department, we were pretty legit. But we didn’t have shit beyond our own department.

So you presented that petition at a meeting, and then immediately there was the retaliation, where Joe got fired?

Pretty immediately. We strategically chose to present the petition to the manager of our department while the owners were on vacation, because we just wanted an opportunity to have human-to-human interaction with our manager while the owners were away. But the owners’ kids worked there too – it really was a family operation: the parents owned the place, and they were there every day, and then their kids ran different parts of the store – and so it got back to them [the parents] pretty quickly, what was going on, and they were pissed. Pretty much immediately, within days of that whole thing, they came up with this ridiculous reason to fire Joe.

Did you guys know that their kids worked there or were you just not thinking it was that much of a threat?

Oh yeah, we knew. One of the kids ran the meat department, one of the kids ran the front-end, but there weren’t any of them in natural foods, and we just kind of got lost in focusing just on our own department.

What issues did you guys take on in your petition? Was that your only action?

That was it. That was the first thing we did publicly. It was concrete stuff: “We’d like $1/hour raise for each person in the department, we’d like some sick leave” – just basic bread-and-butter stuff like that. I don’t remember the specifics, but it wasn’t anything super ambitious or bold. It was just like, “We want to be treated like valued human beings here.” Everyone was really behind it. We got 16-18 of the 20 employees to sign off on it. It was something that everybody felt like was really reasonable and not terribly threatening.

The demands, of course, are very reasonable, but at the same time, if you were to negotiate those things in a contract, they’re sort of big asks.

Yeah, and the real thing came down to power. They were willing to hire an out-of-town union-busting lawyer. They spent a tremendous amount of money, by our estimation, breaking this whole thing up and defeating us – much more than they probably would have spent just giving us what we were asking for. But it comes down to power: if you allow that kind of example to be set, especially in an intimate workplace like that, [cashiers] on the front end are going to be like, “Why can’t we have the same thing?” and that’s a dynamic that they [the owners] were not having, because that was their place. That was their family plantation, basically, and they were not going to let anybody to fuck with that.

What did you guys do after the firing happened, to fight it?

Well, that was another dumb, rookie mistake on my part, but I actually walked out with the guy. When they fired him, I was like, “Fuck this, this is bullshit” – you know, I was outraged. And so right off the top, the two main organizers are gone from the store. That’s it. But it was one of those things where it was completely unexpected, it came from out of nowhere. We were just, literally that afternoon, sitting at the bar, like, “What the fuck are we going to do?” And like I said, it was a shameful thing too, because when you fire someone for stealing, you didn’t just fire them, you just called them a thief, so it felt like a real gut-punch.

Anecdotally, at the place we have organized here in New York, the boss illegally fired 31 people, and accused all of them of theft. We ultimately clobbered the boss and got him to recant his allegations of theft and offer folks their jobs back with back pay. But I know how insulting and demeaning and infuriating that kind of allegation of theft is.

Yeah, another quick anecdote: years after our campaign at Ward’s, there was another IWW organizing attempt at a coop here. The workers felt like they were being really mishandled by management – and this was a coop! So they got the customer list from the store’s database, and sent out an email that was basically like: “Please hear our voices. We are the workers at this coop. We are actively organizing to form a union. These are our grievances. We are asking for your support.” They sent this out to every single customer, and the board of the coop immediately votes to accuse all of them of stealing company information, and fires the entire staff. They gave all of them a chance to rat each other out, and then anyone who didn’t rat was fired.

That day, I called one of the board members who I knew, and I said, “You guys are in the wrong on this legally, you’re going to be found in the wrong, you’re going to have to hire all of these people back with back pay, and it’s going to ruin the image of this coop. You need to take this shit back right now.” And they didn’t, and everything I said is what ended up happening to them. And I knew it because of what happened to us at the grocery store.

So you filed a ULP…

Yeah, like I said, the campaign became all about Joe, basically, and he was somebody who had been actively involved in the labor community here for a few years, so he knew the Central Labor Council, he knew all the local unions, he knew all the local activists – he was pretty well-connected. And he used everything he had and basically organized a community campaign.

So we waged this community campaign against the store, and simultaneously filed with the NLRB, and ultimately the NLRB interviewed everybody, they found the store [in the] wrong, and made them hire Joe back, and give him back pay, and post this thing in the store… But of course at that point, the campaign was dead.

And Joe even said, when he got his job back, “I’m like toxic now. Nobody will talk to me. It’s miserable being back there working now because people are scared to even have a conversation with me.” So we won him getting his job back, and he worked there for a little while, and was so miserable that he quit. And that was it.

I always say to folks: it’s illegal to fire somebody for organizing, and bosses know that, but they take a calculated risk and they do it anyway. They know that the NLRB might find them in the wrong, but it’s worth it to kill the campaign.

Oh absolutely. Totally. That was one of the biggest take-home lessons. For a minute they had their name run through the mud in the community, they lost this hearing at the NLRB, they had to do all this shit, but now, ten years on, their store is doing just fine. It’s doing probably better than ever. It’s great. And they have no union. So like you said, it was a calculated risk, and it was well worth it from their perspective.

What advice do you have for other workers organizing at work, given your experience here and elsewhere?

The biggest thing is don’t underestimate what a big [undertaking] it is. You either have a hot shop, which has its own set of pitfalls, or you have a tremendous amount of work to do, and the odds are stacked against you every step of the way.

Really understand what you’re getting yourself into, because if you have a campaign that abysmally goes awry, and people leave that with a really bad taste in their mouth for anything union, you might have actually done more harm than good.

I feel like the adjunct campaign that I’m involved now with is night-and-day different, and I feel like it’s largely informed by the experience that I had at the grocery store, so in a way I’m really thankful for it, but in another way, I’m like, “God, that was really terrible organizing and we had no idea what we were doing.”