Exhilaration and Inertia: The campaign at TTX (Part II)

AP Geller talks about a solidarity union campaign they helped organize at a telecoms subcontractor, from 2014-2016. In Part I, they described how the committee was built, and how together they organized a successful strike to secure missing wages.

Post-strike hangover

After the strike, things went back to normal for about three to four months. We kept meeting as a committee, but we didn’t follow up in an intentional way on the recognition agreement we had presented to the boss, David, or bargain for the demands we had brought up. In fact, looking back I think that if we had kept the pressure on David to bargain with us immediately after winning the strike, it’s something we could have made happen.

But speaking for myself, the strike was the most contentious workplace situation I’d ever been in, and even though it was exhilarating and we won, I had a hangover from it. I just wanted to breathe and work in peace for a day or two, which became a week, and then a month, etc.

Motivation is easy to come by when there’s a major acute issue at work, but in the absence of that, it’s easy to be overcome by inertia. We all had lives in the background, and being in constant open conflict with your employer is a tough and exhausting way to live. This wasn’t the last time this would happen to us, and one of the big takeaways I have from this campaign is that finding a way to stay engaged in fighting back, and to keep up morale for it on a consistent basis, is really hard, and absolutely necessary. I’ll say more about that later on.

Lucky for us, it wasn’t the last time we’d have to do battle over missing wages. In March, we started noticing the same issues with incomplete or bounced checks, and we started meeting about a response.

An unlikely committee member

This time around there were new people in the mix. Frank was a coworker who had been working for the company off and on for a while, but hadn’t been around for our last action. This time however, Frank was working full-time hours, so we knew we had to try to get him on board.

Frank was not a person we had helped hire in, and he was coming from a very different place than the majority of the committee. He was 40 years old, ex-military, and proudly conservative. He was notorious for saying ignorant shit on the job, and we generally did our best to limit interacting with him as much as we could. We all assumed he would be against organizing together, and because of that, assumed the goal of talking to him would just be to keep him from actively interfering with us. But we reached out to him to set up a meeting anyway, because we knew we couldn’t afford not to.

We decided Joni and I would be the ones to meet with Frank, so we asked him where his favorite restaurant was and if he wanted to get some food and talk about how things were going at work. Before the meeting, Joni and I talked over again how a one-on-one or two-on-one meeting is supposed to go: how we should be asking him questions and listening more than talking, how we should be looking for what his most important issues were and helping to lead him to the conclusion that his anger should be directed squarely at David, and that working together was the solution.

Union graffiti: "IU 560" refers to "Industrial Union 560," for communications, computer and software workers | Image courtesy of the author
Union graffiti: “IU 560” refers to “Industrial Union 560,” for communications, computer and software workers | Image courtesy of the author

Building the ability and confidence for as many people as possible to know how to have these deliberate conversations ends up being really important — it spreads out the workload, builds capacity, and makes sure everyone is personally invested and has agency in organizing. It also lends itself to some awkward moments where you are basically saying “Hey, this is the script I used to talk to you and look how well that turned out.”

So we met Frank at his favorite Chinese restaurant out in the county, and went in ready to do damage control. Imagine our surprise when we left that meeting with Frank fully on board for a strike action. He even offered to talk to the short-term helpers––whom he had a great deal of influence over––about joining on and not scabbing.

As it turns out, Frank had been experiencing a lot of the scheduling problems that we were dealing with before Alex got promoted and before our first strike. He was also getting shorted on his checks, as were the friends he brought on from time to time as temp helpers. On top of that, we learned that he was still making his three-month probationary rate of $15/hr, after being with the company on and off for at least six months. Frank had every reason to take collective action with us, but we hadn’t reached out to him before because we had assumed his position instead of engaging with him.

What got Frank on board was not asking him if he wanted to join a union, or if he wanted to go on strike with us. What did it was engaging him on his issues, and listening. Then we asked him to imagine what a collective solution would look like. He came to the idea of a strike on his own, and then we were able to tell him about our last strike and how successful it was.

In fact, Frank later joined the committee, and was vocal in delivering demands in our next action. Later on after the strike, and after being told in honest terms what the IWW was, anti-capitalism and all, he said he would even be ready to meet with a delegate and take out a red card.

To be clear, this didn’t mean that Frank was now our friend. It also didn’t mean that Frank got a pass on making his coworkers uncomfortable or making the job more alienating than it already was. On a personal level, Frank still sucked.

But if we had not been able or willing to engage with him, and had only organized with the people we liked or tolerated, the only person who benefitted would have been the boss. Effectively, it would have left Frank high and dry, subject to the whims of a petty dictator. Maybe we could have even lived with that — but it would also have left the rest of us unable to wield power at work, because there was an eager reserve of coworkers willing and eager to scab and diffuse our impact.

Bluffing about labor law

This time around, the committee decided to take a different approach to giving David our notice to strike. We would start a group text with him and all of us, open the conversation with a demand and lay out the consequences. We were mostly all at home for this, except Joni was over at my place. I’m glad she was there, because things got really intense, and being physically present together for things like this can be reassuring.

The demand delivery was firm and clear, there was a diversity of people speaking up, and we had undisputable documentation of all of the frantic threats David made in response. We even dunked on him for lying to us about labor law not protecting us.

The problem was, as he was quoting specific sections of the NLRA and saying he was talking to a law firm, my confidence in my understanding of the law was badly shaken. He was arguing that our actions weren’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act for some technical reason, and I wasn’t sure he was wrong. I started to worry I had given a false sense of legal protection to all of these people who were now taking a huge risk, and I wondered if we were all going to get fired.

The fact was that he was horribly wrong about the NLRA; and when the whole shop is out on strike, power matters a lot more than what the law says. But my mind was racing with anxiety. In a panic, I called the IWW delegate from DC who had been advising us up to that point, but by our bad luck, he didn’t answer. So I called someone I knew in the Baltimore branch, Oscar. Our luck turned, as he answered immediately.

“Hey I’m on strike at work and my boss is telling us we’re not protected by the law, can I talk to you for a second?”

At that moment, Oscar happened to be with other IWW’s who also had a lot of organizing experience. After they got over their excitement about the situation, they reassured us that yes, our boss was lying and what we were doing was indeed protected by the NLRA. Then another FW, Colt T., said something that caught me off guard.

Crucial support

“What you are doing is hard, and it’s scary, and you all are incredibly brave for doing it, and we will support you in any way we can.”

I felt that sentence in my body- my skin was flushed and I let out a huge breath, and laid down on my kitchen floor. I had no clue how badly I needed to hear that. I imagine Joni felt similarly, and I’ll honestly never forget it. It’s easy to forget yourself emotionally in the middle of something like this, and the value of that kind of support and validation from someone who had been through it before, at a critical moment of a power struggle, is something I can’t overstate.

Then they asked if they could organize a call blast for us, to support the strike. We gave them David’s number, and throughout that night, while David was working to cover multiple sites simultaneously again, he received a flood of calls from all over the country and Canada, and even a few, I’m told, from the UK and Germany, tying up his phone (which he needed to communicate with project managers and engineers) and delivering messages of support for our strike and warning against retaliation.

He also got a special call from Oscar, informing him that we were being formally represented by the IWW, and any retaliation for our concerted activity would be pursued in court — to which David famously replied, “oh… shit”.

Throughout this night, David repeatedly called Joni and I — up to 40 times each. At a certain point, Dan had come over too. Eventually I picked up, and David begged me to do something to get everyone back to work. I told him that it was not up to me at all, that we had all unanimously agreed to do this, and that even if I wanted to call it off, I couldn’t. I lied and told him I’d see what I could do, just to get him off the phone.

David had offered to meet some of the demands, but said it was logistically impossible for him to pay everyone what he owed them within a day.

Organizing means letting others lead

I remember wondering out loud if we should take his offer. If it was really the best he could do, we’d still be winning something, instead of risking losing everything. That was my gut instinct. But when I posed that question, Dan paused, and said, “No, fuck David, he has to pay us everything.”

That sounded reckless and I disagreed with it. On an individual level, I think when you’re organizing there’s a tendency to want to make or sway all of the important decisions of a campaign. Trusting the people you’re in it with to make decisions that you disagree with is crucially important. In this case, Dan was one of the people with the biggest grievances because David owed him and Frank more than he owed anyone else.

Telecom demarc encountered on the job at TTX | Image courtesy of the author
Telecom demarc encountered on the job at TTX | Image courtesy of the author

Also, people have to succeed and fail by their own hand, and learn lessons for themselves through experience. If organizing at work is a long game, feeling like an expert and trying to make all of the decisions might win a race here and there but it won’t win the marathon. You’ll burn out, and people won’t be empowered around you to take the reins. If organizing is a collective effort, doing it yourself is a bad deal for everyone, and more importantly than all of that, no matter how experienced you are, you’re literally just still gonna be wrong a lot.

In this case I was seeing recklessness where it was really just militancy and determination, and when we listened to Dan and didn’t compromise on our demands, we won. We stayed out on strike through the night, and we all got paid up in full the very next morning.

Plugging in to the IWW

After that night, the Baltimore IWW took an interest in our campaign, and we began corresponding regularly. It’s not that they were disinterested before — we just had literally not thought to tell them what we were doing. There was maybe a sense of pride in being able to do all of this ourselves without any institutional support, which only lasted until we needed help. It would have been useful for us to have checked in with the local branches about what we were up to beforehand, and if we had to do this again I’d do that differently.

I think the IWW can feel subcultural sometimes in a way that prevents people from bringing coworkers around who aren’t in a kind of leftist, activist scene already. That’s real, and valid, and how I felt too. I still feel that way to a degree, but the IWW also has a lot going for it that makes it critically useful to engage with in an organizing drive. The call blast action was a prime example of that, not to mention that the DC and Baltimore IWW each gave us hundreds of dollars in strike fund money to make up for lost hours.

If we had wanted to take it a step further, the monthly General Organizing Committee meetings would have been a great place to bring everyone to talk about strategy and meet other folks who are organizing in other workplaces. This might have gone a long way towards keeping the fire burning in between these high-intensity actions.

Explaining the IWW to others

After the second strike, Frank came out to his first committee meeting, at the local college. He had initially said he couldn’t make it since he had his kids that weekend. Instead of leaving it at that, we offered to set up a child care arrangement for him. He didn’t take us up on that, but I think the fact that we were offering led him to take the meeting more seriously, and he worked out an arrangement with his ex-wife so that he could come.

This meeting was supposed to be the first committee meeting that IWW delegates from Baltimore attended with us, so on the way over we had what we expected to be a tough conversation with Frank about what the IWW is and what it’s all about.

We explained that the constitution has language about abolishing the wage system and the union has been rooted in anti-capitalism from the beginning. But what’s more important about the IWW, we told him, is what it looks like at work, and it’s all about solidarity with each other, democratic decision-making, and building power.

Once again, we thought he would be put off by that and push back on us for asking him to join, but when we asked him, he was eager to take out a red card, no questions asked.

The lesson here I think is that most people who work for a living, regardless of how they conceive of their own politics outside of work, are generally open to and agree with the principles of the IWW on the shop floor. When we can communicate to them what the IWW is by first showing them instead of telling them, it’s actually really easy for people see the value in joining.

Unfortunately the IWW rep with delegate credentials didn’t come to the meeting as planned, and although Colt, an experienced organizer, did show up, we weren’t able to get our committee, Frank included, signed up. We ended up losing Frank over the next several months, and I don’t believe this incident had much of anything to do with why that happened, but I wonder if some things might have played out any differently if Frank had become a dues-paying member of the union that day.

The beginning of the end

We didn’t know it at the time, but the success of that last strike was the beginning of the end of our success as a committee.

David retained a lawyer, put out a new company handbook, and was actively scheming about how he was going to get rid of this union problem once and for all. At the same time, rather than getting more diligently prepared, we got more bold and reckless without real organizing to back it up. Many of us were arguing with him openly on the job site, taking our time fucking around, racing each other on the lift equipment, watching TV on the clock and generally toggling between feeling untouchable, and feeling like the job was so shitty we didn’t care anymore.

There was one day shortly after the strike ended where David was meeting Joni and I at a jobsite and we wore big International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers pins that said “UNION YES!” We also had “There’s Power In a Union” by Billy Bragg playing through the speaker system as he walked into the site to talk with us. It felt good to be openly defiant of our boss, and in some way it felt more like an honest day’s work to do your job and tell your boss to fuck off in the same breath. The problem was, we weren’t really organizing , and he was.

Joni and I heard from another member of the committee, Randall, that David had confided in him during a job that two vacancies were opening up soon. Apparently David made Randall guess who he was going to fire, and he eventually landed on myself and Joni. Randall asked David why, and David replied that he could come up with reasons, and that the union activity was putting the company at risk.

Telephone test set and IWW graffiti | Image courtesy of the author
Telephone test set and IWW graffiti | Image courtesy of the author

So when we started having problems with our checks again, and haphazardly announced our third strike action without any deliberate planning, it was no surprise to anyone that David fired Joni and I on the spot. What was surprising was that when we called Frank together on speakerphone to tell him what had happened, he replied that he would be going in to work.

“I have kids and a family to think about, and this whole union thing is just a bunch of crybaby bullshit! I’m sick of it!”

“What the fuck, you think David cares about your kids?! Did you forget how we worked together to get you that $2.00 raise, you forget about how we won your backpay? We’re all supposed to be looking out for each other!”

“All you all do is bitch and complain, I’m not down with this anymore.”

“So you’re scabbing out on us?!”

“I’m going to work like I’m supposed to, that’s what I’m doing.”

Outmaneuvered and demoralized

This is not a conversation you learn to have in the Organizer Training 101.

It is a conversation that happens, in real life, when you’ve failed to take your organizing seriously, with a year worth of pent up emotion and very real shit on the line. I’m not proud of it.

I would like to be able to say that I was just mad at Frank, but that phone call was like a punch in the gut. I saw everything we had worked on over the past year crumbling around us, and it started to dawn on me how badly we had messed up. I didn’t admit it to anyone, but when Frank called our campaign “crybaby bullshit” and “complaining,” it didn’t just piss me off. It also hurt way more than I could have expected.

It wasn’t just Frank going to work that night either. We had a new employee, Kirk, who didn’t even know we were going on strike, because the one-on-one we had planned for him never actually happened.

Randall, who had been on the committee from the early days, after learning that we had been fired, also went to work.

Later we found out that David had given him a new title days earlier — “Training Manager” — without any documentation, defined responsibilities or increased pay. More than likely this was to make him second-guess his NLRA protections, and it worked.

We didn’t have a plan, and we had taken Frank’s support for granted for months without actually checking in or doing any more one-on-ones. We never talked to Kirk, and did such a bad job agitating and inoculating ourselves that one of our own long-time committee accomplices either wasn’t ready for the retaliation or just didn’t believe in what the rest of us were doing. And we didn’t know until it was too late.

TTX closes

According to Unfair Labor Practice charges filed by David with the NLRB against the Baltimore branch, someone affiliated with our campaign or the Baltimore IWW spent the next day alerting all of David’s clients to his dishonest business practices and union-busting. I can’t say whether this happened or not, but if it did it would have happened with the consent of a majority of our organizing committee.

With our unity on the shop floor broken, it also would have been an action taken from a position of powerlessness.

David ultimately lost every one of his clients that weekend, and was forced to close his business for good. To be sure, this wasn’t a gesture of solidarity from the clients; David was just on such thin ice with them already they couldn’t stomach the drama.

We filed our own charges with the labor board, and given how easy it had been to document David’s explicit anti-union retaliation with hard evidence and witness statements from Alex and Randall, Joni and I were eventually awarded roughly $1,500 each in back pay for being illegally fired for protected concerted activity.

Every employee got an official letter from the government stating that TTX had violated our rights, and that they promised not to do it again. It also said that we were to be given our jobs back, if they still existed. No one else was awarded any money, and we learned that the NLRB couldn’t impose punitive fines against David even if they wanted to.

Was it a win?

I get a mixed bag of reactions when I tell people that TTX was destroyed in less than a day by this campaign. Some people think it’s pretty cool… and those people are right. We all hope David still has nightmares about us.

But it’s really important for me to be clear about one thing: we didn’t win.

We won along the way, by taking direct action to resolve issues like scheduling and missing pay, but in the end we lost due to avoidable mistakes. It would have been a lot cooler if we had been able to force David to give us adequate training, fair mileage reimbursements, and healthy working conditions like we set out to do in the first place.

It would have been cooler to actually have sustainable power at work.

Lessons learned

In no particular order, here are some final reflections on the TTX campaign that I hope other organizers can learn from, instead of learning for themselves, the hard way.

1. Every success this campaign had was because we were extremely diligent, over-prepared, and stuck to the OT101 framework. Every failure this campaign had was because we took shortcuts, got lazy, or didn’t do the necessary groundwork.

2. Building up through steady escalation is better than going big at the beginning. Our first ever action was going public by taking over a meeting and announcing a strike. If we’d worked through our list of grievances with smaller direct-action campaigns instead of being a reactive campaign to David’s worst offenses we’d have been less depleted along the way and might have won what we actually wanted.

3. Have a plan to support yourself and each other emotionally. Organizing your job can change your life, but it’ll take years off of it and hurt your campaign if you don’t have people in your corner ready to congratulate you when you win and encourage you when things get hard.

4. Coworkers can tell when you are taking organizing seriously, and they can also tell when you aren’t. The tell you this through their behavior in the campaign: no one is going to take a risk with you if you don’t have their trust, and they shouldn’t.

5. Regular maintenance is key. Never stop checking in with your coworkers and committee members, and never stop having one-on-ones. If you’re not talking to them your boss is.