Deirdre C reflects on the IWW campaign at Star Tickets call center from 2010-2014. Part I can be read here. This part focuses on the election, bargaining, and the end of the campaign.
Why we filed for an election
I had presented a doctor’s note on December 4, 2012 recommending that I work from home due to extreme back pain I had been experiencing, for many months actually, but it had gotten to the point where I couldn’t bear it any longer. I simply could not handle sitting for longer than 15 minutes at a time, and needed to alter my position from standing, sitting, kneeling, laying down, stretching out, curling up, with props, etc. I was finding some relief with wet compresses but couldn’t very well take my pants off in the office for that. Sitting on the toilet was actually the only place I could sit comfortably. I actually still suffer from this chronic pain condition but as I was just afflicted with it, I was having a difficult adjustment to my new reality of living in pain. I didn’t really want special treatment but I absolutely cannot sit at a desk for eight hours a day.
The solution that they offered me was to cut my hours and my pay. Even though it was actually a normal thing for us to work from home. My manager allowed it and had no problem with it. It was upper management who didn’t want to set a precedent for it. Our phone system allowed us to route calls to our cell phones, so it could actually have been set up in such a way that no one would have known that I wasn’t in the office at all. I even offered to come in part time and work from home the rest of the time but they told me they would only pay me for the hours that I worked in the office or was actually answering a call or email request from home. I couldn’t afford to take their time-sheet deal (I was used to working on salary), so I stayed in the office and laid on the floor and cried in pain from 9-5 until I could go work from the relative comfort of home.
This went on for months.
That’s what eventually led to us seeking election: I was desperate. I went to the NLRB office on January 2, 2013 to find out what recourse I had against the company for not accommodating my request to work from home — I had several doctors notes at this point. The NLRB sent me to the Civil Rights office to file a “failure to accommodate.” We’d also been put in touch with a labor lawyer, so I sent him a message about all of this and asked him what direction he thought we should go. When he heard that we had a majority of people in our organizing campaign, he told me we were crazy not to file for an election, and so we started talking about it.
Cole tried to talk us out of it, reminding us that we had learned in our organizer training that the National Labor Relations Board is set up to divert our energy from direct action to boardroom politics, and that there was no win for us there. He told us that Jack [Krasula, president of Star Tickets] would refuse to bargain and hide behind bureaucracy, and we could do better by keeping the NLRB out of it. He pushed us to continue to build our solidarity in the shop and focus on reaching out to people who weren’t on board. But we were struggling over organizing without going public, and losing people due to turnover, and failing to connect with new people.
Cole had left us for either Hawaii or Oakland at that point, so we needed to make our own decision. Looking back, I see that all of those arguments were right, and I do wish we had listened to him. Then again, we had that election win and I wouldn’t be writing this story without that.
Our union really had the most active participants from folks who had affinity for each other: Evelyn, me, Ariel, Frederick, Antonio, Betty, Suzy, Bradley, Ken, Arnold. Arnold, Betty and Suzy were misclassified as independent contractors. When Arnold brought up this issue in one of the call center meetings, he was fired – or, rather, “his contract was up.” He pursued challenging Star in court over this for a little bit, but it turned out to be costly to pursue with lawyers, and at that point since we weren’t public we didn’t know how to escalate collectively on his behalf. We tried to figure out how to address the issue of the remaining contract workers on staff (Betty and Suzy) and found they were supposed to be able to set their own hours and they were suddenly exempt from write-ups, but we didn’t have a strategy for addressing the issue without blowing our cover.
It was difficult for us to find time when we were all available to meet. Call center hours were from 8am-midnight except on Sundays, when we opened at noon. Often we met over breakfast on Sundays before the call center opened to talk about what problems we were experiencing and strategize over how we could address them collectively, or who would have the next one-on-one with who.
We also sent many, many emails, labeled “STOC” for Star Tickets Organizing Committee. I also had access, through a family friend, to a fancy condo in a high-rise with a pool, hot tub, and sauna, and we made frequent use of that space for meetings and general hangouts, often late into the night. It was also where we took Suzy’s kid when we babysat while Suzy worked. Mutual aid was always an important tenet in our organizing.
We started losing people on the committee. Antonio got a better opportunity working in the public schools system. (Although he did stay on and continue meeting and strategizing with us over email, it was not the same as having his solidarity to count on should something go down on the job.) Suzy was fired when, I heard, she had a no-call/no-show because of a death in her family. Before that, however, Suzy had backed out of communicating with the committee, because she had some personal issues with another coworker, Tyra, whom we had been trying really hard to bring onto our committee. We recognized that Tyra was a powerful personality and we wanted her on our side and not against us. In the end, we learned she wasn’t ever going to be for anyone other than herself though, and she was trusted with far too much information.
I always felt we really missed an opportunity with May. Evelyn had had a conversation with her in July 2011, so she knew we were organizing, but she was hesitant to join us. She may have had more of a conservative background than we realized. Somehow I always thought if I could have had a one-on-one with her, I may have appealed to her because we always had seemed to understand each other. But I had a hard time having conversations with call center employees because I had an office, where I was spending every second working. And I was also preoccupied with the campaign and wanting a big win. We lost her by not bringing her into our club before we went public. She was excluded, and she made a formidable opponent to our cause.
We had started making moves going to bat for each other over little things. So, when Bradley was written up over something that a manager had also done, Ariel and I approached the manager together to discuss our objection to it, and then together we approached upper management asking to have it resolved.
This actually didn’t get us anywhere, but we were playing with addressing things collectively while still avoiding outing our activity to the point where we had to face a whole union-busting campaign.
Response to the election
We filed for the election and presented our demands to our boss on January 23. The election campaigning was brutal. It actually took them a little while to respond, but it started around February 8 with a round of things the lawyer we had been consulting with called standard-form anti-union handouts. These came out every Friday for three weeks, with sometimes bonus literature mid-week. We had to fit in responding to each of these things between everything else that was going on. Ariel and Evelyn took on a lot of that work and everything can still be seen on the IWW Star Tickets Workers Union Facebook page.
We also had a new person around the office to tell us all about the election process and answer any “questions” we might have… she met with each of us in scheduled meetings, two at a time.
It was wild to be dealing with NLRB and hearing support from the public and the IWW worldwide while on the job. I worked with our company Facebook page, and while I was on Facebook I was getting notifications for the workers’ union page at the same time. And calls from NLRB agents come during business hours (not that there were designations of “working hours” at Star… I mean, our customer service was literally marketed to clients as available 24/7, and we had company-paid cell phones and were expected to be available at all times for our clients, most especially in the case of “ticketing emergencies”).
Our vote took place March 6. The election results were 7 for, 6 against. Frederick’s “yes” vote (which would have made it 8-6) was contested. We didn’t need it to win, but it still held up the certification.
Tim was fired March 11 and replaced by Larry (on independent contract status) the next day. Our certification was issued on March 25 and I was fired on March 26.
I was fired for a “client complaint.” I don’t think they told me what client had complained. I had plenty of good reviews from clients. I guess they decided they would rather spend money on a legal fight over firing me than have me fighting the issues of myself and my fellow workers.
Our first bargaining session was May 6. We had a lawyer come over from the Chicago IWW branch to help out and represent us on our side. I was on the bargaining committee and was still fighting for reinstatement at that point. The first thing we did to prepare for negotiations was to draft out a complete contract, which we presented at that meeting and which was met with all sorts of laughter and derision from the company lawyer. We decided we could represent ourselves going forward because it didn’t seem like the Chicago lawyer knew much more than we did about how to get what we wanted and he had traveled such a long way and actually he gave off a sort of creep vibe.
We kept having to draft proposed agreements that never got agreed to because of a thing called a zipper clause (?) where we had to agree to everything all together in order for anything to be put into effect so nothing ever was effected.
Eventually I was called out (by Tyra) for being at the table as an outsider because I no longer worked there. (“I thought the union was just people who work at Star Tickets?” and “I don’t want her representing me.”)
One of the wins we got from negotiations was a raise for Betty who was the one bilingual call center representative. I’m not sure how this went into effect before negotiations were done, but I remember the company lawyer being amenable to it. I think it was because we were negotiating on behalf of one employee instead of all of us, but it made sense to all of us that because Betty had that skill, and we had to transfer all the Spanish speaking customers to her, she should be compensated.
We met monthly with the company. This is from the notes from our Grand Rapids IWW branch meeting in September:
bargaining with the asshole company lawyer sucks and we hate it… We have a grievance procedure, and have made a bunch of tentative agreements (dress code, jury duty pay…) but the likely outcome will be that we aren’t able to reach agreement on a contract in the first year and someone will be prompted to file to decertify the union. Lots of people being hired are just coming in on nepotism. We’ve won a couple modest raises for individuals, changes in salaried workers being paid overtime pay. We’re at an impasse on the no-strike clause, but that can’t hold up our negotiations over the rest of the contract because it isn’t a mandatory bargaining subject.
A year after the first vote took place, Tyra filed for decertification and another vote was held. By this time, Bradley had moved to California, I had started working pretty regularly with the stagehands’ union again, and the people they had hired in at Star Tickets were pretty firmly against the union. We actually had some friends we tried to get hired, who were asked what they knew about the union in the interview, so we knew they were screening people about it in the interview process. We had been defeated and we had given up by the time the second (decertification) election took place.
Overall, I would say the lessons I learned are that organizing is certainly difficult work, but so rewarding. Building solidarity amongst our fellow workers can be easy and natural and can bring hope to your darkest days. So many times I wanted to give up but I knew that my fellow workers were counting on me to do my part — indeed, that giving up would do no good because I wouldn’t be able to convince the others to give up too!
I definitely was surprised by people’s reactions – in good and bad ways. I thought I’d have someone all figured out, would roleplay a one-on-one conversation with them and go in thinking “well, I guess here goes nothing” and come out with a solid supporter. Or I’d think, “this person needs the union more than anyone! They’re gonna be so excited to hear about it” and they’d be too scared to even meet with me.
I learned that my social anxieties just don’t have any place in an organizing campaign. I had support from people all over the world. Calls from the Organizing Committee to strategize who would be the next target to have a one-on-one, and when we went public, flowers and cookies and comic strips by mail from General Membership Branches the world over. (Management would hide the notes from the flowers under the vase!)
I want to say that if I were to do it over again, I would wait until we were all on board before going public, but I think that isn’t realistic. What we could have done would have been to turn up the heat with more direct action at work but they also had us so segmented that it was tough to act in unison.
In hindsight, I’m just so glad I don’t work there anymore that it’s hard to regret being fired, but it has been very difficult having to account for that abrupt “layoff”. That was a part of the agreement I signed when I agreed to drop my case against them for wrongful termination, that they would call my firing a “layoff.” I received a cash settlement, and signed a non-disclosure agreement about it.
To people who are organizing now, I would advise: it is slow work. We organized for 3 years before we went public, and we filed for an election because we knew we would win and felt it was important to have that victory. But it truly became the focal point of our campaign, and everything came down to the election and then the bargaining table, and that was a complete waste of time. We only have the upper hand on the shop floor.