Paid in Full: The campaign at TTX (Part I)

AP Geller talks about a solidarity union campaign they helped organize at a telecoms subcontractor, from 2014-2016.

TTX, when it still existed, was a commercial telecommunications services subcontractor based in Frederick, MD, servicing the Baltimore/DC metro area.

I worked for TTX as a Field Technician. My job mostly involved working in office buildings or retail stores installing stuff: Cat5 cabling, phone systems, routers, network switches, speaker systems, new internet circuits, cash registers — and fixing stuff: network jacks, broken phone lines, etc.

The workforce was in constant flux during my time there, expanding and contracting from between as little as three to as many as twelve employees and short-term contract helpers. I got my friend Alex a job; they would later become the lead technician, and then operations manager. Between Alex and me, we were able to get several more people hired in, who were friends, friends of friends, or old coworkers.

Starting at TTX

I started working at TTX in the fall of 2014. I’d been working at a temp agency the previous year, bouncing around between warehousing, construction and data entry gigs before landing on an assignment with a landscaping company that worked federal government contracts.

It was great money, I got to work in the sun, and I got a kick out of being granted access to secure government sites to throw dirt around with other randoms. It was a good job, but it was horribly unsafe, and the conditions became too bad to put up with (we heard whispers from other folks there that one worker had even died on the job the previous year).

Go figure, when a handful of us individually told the temp agency we didn’t like being made to dodge falling logs and shove branches into an industrial chipper as quickly as possible without any concern for our safety, they just stopped scheduling us.

So I was out of a job, and without a degree or trade skills, when a friend of a friend told me the company he worked at needed unskilled helpers. When I interviewed with the owner, David Gerlak, the conversation went roughly like this:

David: “So what do you know about data?”

Me: “Nothing.”

David: “Ok… yeah I’ve got a job for ya.”

I started the next day and would stay there for the next two years.

I realized later that this type of interview was actually pretty common, both for TTX and for the telecom industry. Bosses like to hire people green and train them up themselves, because an experienced technician is expensive, and maybe more importantly, knows the difference between industry standards and abuse.

Issues on the job

The problems with David’s management of the company were apparent almost immediately. As a manager he was explosively disorganized — double-booking service tickets, forgetting about jobs we were supposed to be at, until the last minute, and accepting more work than we could handle.

The burden of this fell on the workers, who were forced to go to jobs without the right tools and materials, were given last minute notice to work an hour away, and forced to work unhealthy and unpredictably long hours.

We had no training program, and what little training we did get on the job only happened when we’d work with the boss, and only when he felt like doing it. More often than not, we’d be sent to a site to do technical work that he’d forgotten we would have to do, or forgotten that we didn’t know how to do.

This meant that even routine, simple jobs always had the potential to become stressful and humiliating for the techs working them. It also meant that every nugget of new information we learned about our jobs was learned under duress, from making it up enough times, learning from technicians from other companies who just felt bad for us, learning from each other as novices, or learning from Google. It could have been easily mitigated with a couple of short, organized training sessions, but we didn’t have the power to force David to implement that, and David didn’t have the desire to.

We would often call him from a job site asking how to do a thing, or how to solve a new obstacle, and the conversation was always the same. He would tell us to figure it out, we would say “what do you mean figure it out?!” and he would say “I’m in the middle of something, I need you to just… just figure it out”.

When we became upset with David he would beg and plead with us to just do the thing, and make promises that if we went along with this one unfair thing he would make sure it never happened again. When clients became upset with us we were explicitly told to lie to them about extreme circumstances like car accidents or family deaths. It was especially bad for all of David’s fictional uncles we lost along the way.

There was no pay for travel time, which was typically an hour, to an hour and a half, each way for a job. We were expected to keep our own cars full of tools and cable at all times with no mileage or gas reimbursements.

We were expected to be available for jobs 24/7. Some days you might start at 4am and work for an hour, then go home and have to be in a different city to work from 8pm to 10am. Then you’d get home, sleep all day and work from 6pm-11pm, go home and have to wake up for a 9am to 5pm shift the following day. Then you’d have the next 6 days off in a row and you’d wonder how you were going to get gas to get to your next job.

A lot of people in my life and in the lives of my coworkers wondered why we didn’t just quit. But for people with no college and no consistent skilled trade experience, $17/hr was the most money any of us had made in our lives, and seemed like our best opportunity to make a wage we could live on.

What I didn’t know then was that two years of this kind of schedule wrecks your health, your mind, and sometimes your relationships with other people. It took the better part of a year to normalize from it once it was over, and even to this day I get sick if my sleep is even a little irregular. I’ll never do it again for any amount of money, and I don’t know if I’ll ever totally recover from it.

Starting a union

The summer of 2015 was when murmurs of organizing a union started, but by that point we had already done things that in hindsight were legitimate job actions that had delivered results, even though we didn’t think of them as organizing.

For example, after a particularly bad scheduling mixup, one coworker, Joni, refused to go to an overnight shift that David had forgotten to tell her about. We had been encouraging David to find a manager to handle scheduling for him for months to no avail, but when Joni refused to go to work, a few of us backed her up to David, and demanded that David promote our other coworker, Alex, to manage the schedules. He did so immediately.

The lesson was clear to everyone: appealing to David’s better nature and making individual complaints didn’t get us anywhere and it never would. What did work was action: a demand, sticking together, and leveraging material consequences.

In the early fall of 2015 I began reaching out to various unions for support in getting organized, and having one-on-one conversations with a couple of trusted coworkers. I had been to an Industrial Workers of the World Organizer Training 101 years before even though I wasn’t a member, and I still had my notes, so I went by the book as closely as possible in these initial conversations.

We reached out to our Communication Workers of America, United Electricians, and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers locals, and the DC branch of the IWW. CWA didn’t respond, UE responded dismissively, and IBEW and IWW agreed to meet with us.

We were a committee of three for these meetings, and at that point we were sure about direct action-oriented organizing, but thought a trade or business union would have more to offer us materially, in terms of support.

The local IBEW rep brought us into a fancy conference room and gave us free soda and pamphlets. He told us we could be making more money (not a priority for us), that it would even be better for our boss to have access to IBEW clients (we didn’t give a shit about our boss), and that we’d have an election and a contract.

What he didn’t do during this meeting was more important: he never asked us what we wanted and how we wanted to get it. When we brought up filing ULP’s [Unfair Labor Practice complaints] or taking action on the job, he cautioned us not to go there, because it would endanger the election and the contract process. After seeing how powerful acting directly against the boss was for us, and having some experience handling our grievances amongst ourselves, this was all we needed to hear. We thanked him for meeting with us, took some union sodas for the road, and moved on with our own plan.

We then continued having conversations with our coworkers about the possibility of organizing, one by one, slowly and deliberately over the next couple of months, growing the committee carefully and beginning to have regular meetings at Taco Bell.

How the committee was built

During those very first conversations I was just gathering data about what was most upsetting everyone. Eventually I started asking leading questions to encourage people to vent, and specifically to direct their venting toward David, which came pretty naturally to all of us. In later conversations we talked about what it would mean to have an organizing committee and what it would look like, and eventually I’d ask people to join.

First I talked to Joni, who I knew really well and who had been the most oppositional to David so far. We agreed that the next person to talk to should be Anna, a good friend of both of ours, who was having the same concerns we were. This was the crew that met with the IBEW.

We all went over how to have these deliberate one-on-ones so they could each have their own with other coworkers to report back information about grievances and later ask them to join the committee.

After that, the three of us decided to reach out to Randall next. None of us knew Randall well, but we knew from limited conversations he was really frustrated with David. Anna had been working with him a lot, and had more of a relationship than anyone with him, so she agreed to reach out to him. Joni had a close relationship with Dan, but Anna, Randall and I didn’t know him well, so we agreed Joni would be the best person to talk to him.

Once Dan was on board, our committee was five of eight or nine total employees, and we decided to keep it there while we figured out a plan, and bring on more people when we were ready. We started collectively drafting a program of demands, imagining new policies that would make our schedules more regular, improve our quality of life, and reimburse us for some of our travel. Our plan was to ask David to voluntarily recognize us as an independent union and negotiate with us on our demands in good faith.

For all of our demands, we laid out amongst ourselves what we really wanted, what we were going to ask for (more than what we wanted) and the least we’d accept. This meant we would be as prepared as possible and all on the same page when entering into negotiations with David, giving us a clear advantage.

This was a great bonding experience for the five of us involved at that time and it was critically important that we had built this strong foundation of working together as a committee. Because in the winter of 2015, the company started defaulting on payroll.

A first successful job action

Sometime in December of 2015, we noticed that some of us were getting paychecks with fewer hours than we had worked, getting checks delivered late, or checks that would bounce. By this time the workforce had contracted to the point where the committee was basically the whole shop, minus one or two temporary helpers who we never met. Things with David had been stable since we got Alex promoted, and we’d been slowly plugging away at our negotiation plans, but this problem with the checks was a major disruption, and we all agreed that we needed to act together to fix it.

Since we had installed a friendly manager earlier in the year, we came up with a plan to have Alex set up a company meeting, ostensibly so David, and David’s wife Stephanie, who handled the accounting, could discuss recent payroll issues with us.

The goal was to have David think that he would be running the meeting, to explain what was happening and reassure us that everything would be ok. In reality, he was walking in to our meeting, and we were ready for him.

We were going to collectively confront David, and give him notice that we would be engaging in a work stoppage due to the payroll issues. We were all scheduled to work that evening after the meeting. He would have two options to end the strike and get us to work on time:

  1. He could pay everyone all of the money we were owed on our checks, in full, that day, or
  2. He could sign a voluntary recognition agreement that the DC IWW had provided to us, recognize us as an independent union, and agree to a bargaining timeline around our list of grievances, then and there.

We figured that if he paid us, we’d at least have our money, and more importantly have built real power for ourselves by making a demand and winning. If he couldn’t pay, we’d be leveraging the payroll dispute against him to force him to the negotiating table, which had been the real goal of our committee for months.

We knew that he might be unable to pay us, and also unwilling to sign the agreement, so we had a backup plan. We all signed fake Communication Workers of America authorization cards printed off the internet before the meeting, and kept them in our back pockets. David often talked to us about how he hated unions, and CWA is the union that he hated specifically more than any other. If he tried to hardball us and decline both options, our plan was to all pull out our CWA authorization cards and place them on the table, while one of us said something to the effect of “you can either deal with us directly, or you can deal with CWA — your choice.”

It was a total bluff. CWA wouldn’t give us the time of day earlier that year and we had no intention of joining. They didn’t seem to have time for such a small shop, but David didn’t know that, and this would definitely give him something else to think about while he decided what approach would be in his best interest. We felt like we had trump cards in our back pockets for the whole meeting, which was a serious confidence boost.

This worked out well for us, but more importantly than the cards was the time we had taken in our committee meetings to inoculate ourselves against what David might do. We talked about how he might get angry and yell, he might cry or beg or try to appear sympathetic, he might threaten to fire us or tell us he’d have to close the company. He would probably try to single us out and offer to cut deals or manipulate us. We talked about how regardless of what David does, we needed to stick to our script, and stick to our plan.

At the meeting, the five of us let David say whatever bullshit he was going to say about the money for about ten minutes, and then began pushing back and challenging his explanations, taking turns so that no one was singled out. At a certain point, one of us announced to David that no one would be reporting to their scheduled jobs later that evening, or any jobs after. We told him his options: pay up or negotiate.

After we gave our ultimatum and the voluntary recognition agreement, David and Stephanie both set about threatening that the company would have to close, and that we would all lose our jobs if we didn’t work that night.

We had planned for this and recorded everything he said in the event that he made good on those threats, so we would have documentation to take to the NLRB as a last resort. We wanted to avoid involving the government as much as possible, but it’s crucial that we were inoculated to these threats and documented them, because as a result they didn’t faze us, and we were able to use that documentation later in legal proceedings.

When David was ambiguous about whether he would sign the agreement, we all looked at each other and slowly gestured toward the CWA cards in our pockets like we were about to shoot up a saloon. We stood down when he agreed to take it home and look it over.

Then he looked each of us in the eye, one by one, and said “is there anything I can do for you to get you to work tonight?” and one by one every person said, “No, you can either sign the agreement or pay us,” and “My answer is the same,” “My answer is the same,” “My answer is the same,” “My answer is the same.”

We knew he would try to single us out for manipulation, and we had talked over that possibility beforehand. The result was that we were ready for it, it didn’t work, and it made us all feel like we were in control and could trust each other and ourselves that much more.

None of us went to work that night, and David was forced to try to cover several time-sensitive, two-person job sites concurrently between himself and Alex (who was still undercover) from dusk to dawn. We woke up the next morning to a text from Stephanie saying that our new checks were ready, and we went back to work that evening, having been paid in full.

Read part two here.