No More Surprises

MK Lees argues we should be shouldn’t be surprised when a boss acts like a boss. We should be ready.

This week, two social media flare-ups in the labor world caught my attention. The first was in the context of the OPEIU’s organizing drive at Kickstarter, where two union supporters were recently fired. This led to a Twitterstorm of outrage and many concerned allies shouting across the internet “That’s totally illegal! Shame on Kickstarter!” Even a brief perusal of the Twitter post from a fired organizer’s tweet reveals reactions like these:

Firings are awful, both for those who lose their income and health insurance, as well as for the workers collectively trying to build power to win better job conditions. We should be instinctually upset that something like this is allowed to happen. But when I read a headline like “Kickstarter Accused of Union-Busting After Firing Workers” it reads to me like “Lakers Accused of Trying to Win Game after Fouling Players” or “US Military Accused of Trying to Win War by Using Landmines.” In other words, just because the enemy does something horrible, doesn’t mean that thing shouldn’t be completely expected. 

The second example was around the General Motors strike, now in full swing. Several news outlets ran the story that GM was cutting off the healthcare plans of the strikers. The fact that this was newsworthy was surprising to me at first. Doesn’t every company cut off benefits during a strike? It’s 100% legal to do this thanks to a labor board that mostly serves to enumerate lists of illegal worker actions, and legal boss actions. Reading on, I appreciated that this kind of inhumane siege tactic was being called into the spotlight, to bolster the call for Medicare for All, which would free workers from employer dependence. But on the flip side, I wondered whether this kind of story didn’t also signal boost a classic company talking-point. Union busters LOVE to talk about how unions force workers out on strike, and that they could lose their insurance if that happened (ergo “the union causes workers to lose benefits”). Was this a sneaky way of sending fear out to other workers who might try something similar? I also again found myself dismayed by the way so much of the left was scandalized by this event. As a whole, I came away thinking, “Man, we don’t understand power, and we aren’t ready.”

99.99% of employers fight against their workers when they organize. It is a virtual guarantee that employers will intimidate, harass, surveil, and retaliate against union leaders. They will pay thousands of dollars per hour to union-busting consultants who specialize in obliterating unions. They will lie to workers and force them to sit through captive audience meetings where they will be bludgeoned with anti-union propaganda. And these are just the general things you can expect from every union organizing drive. Here’s a sample of some real life “special” techniques bosses have used:

  • In a campaign I was recently involved in, companies we were fighting against bought off all of the sites that are read by workers in my industry and used them as a daily feed for anti-union propaganda and lies. The sites now also control the comments to favor a ratio skewed towards anti-union posts (most of them anonymous).
  • In another campaign, workers were taken on a little field trip to a scary, run-down warehouse that looked like some place you might stash a body, then surrounded by company managers who told them how bad things might get for them if they joined the union.
  • In a campaign at a retail store, the bosses identified a union leader and would tail him everywhere he went, all shift long. They would order him to clean the bathroom while they stood outside the door waiting for him. When he would finish, they’d order him to clean it again. Then again. Before long, he was so isolated from his coworkers, and so clearly an example of what happens to people who speak up, that every other employee was too scared to even be seen standing near him.
  • Another union leader was scheduled to open the store. A manager told her to come in at 7:00 instead of 6:00, because management would take care of opening up this time.  When she showed up at 7:00, she was called into the office and fired for being late.
  • On a grocery campaign that’s going on now, managers told workers that union organizers will attempt to force their way into workers’ homes and that it would be prudent to stop them by any means necessary. This caused an IWW member and close friend of mine to have a gun pulled on him twice while visiting workers at home. 
  • One campaign saw workers privately coached by a management representative that it would be okay to invite an organizer in and then mix lye into a cup of coffee for them. 
  • A creative tip offered to workers in another campaign was that it wouldn’t be illegal to allow an organizer into your home, then go to the kitchen and start smashing plates and glasses and screaming, and call the police and tell them you are being attacked.

I point these out not to paint a picture of doom. In fact, many of these campaigns were won, despite the fierce resistance from the employers. But rather I want to suggest that we should not be shocked when employers do the very thing they were designed to do: eliminate obstacles to profit maximization, obstacles like unions. 

As for how to respond, it’s a myth that boards of directors care deeply about their public image. You cannot appeal to their humanity. You cannot shame them, because they have no shame. They sure don’t care about Twitter. And they definitely don’t care about being sued. The only “language they understand,” to quote the tweet above, is raw power, so that’s where all our energy should be focused. We have to be ready for a fight to contest their power with our own. 

We are experiencing a moment in time when radical political engagement is on the rise. More and more people want to stand up fight back. Let’s encourage outrage and call attention to all the shitty things bosses do to hurt workers. But at the same time, let’s come to grips with the cold fact that real change is going to mean tremendous risks and learning strategies to beat our class enemies, who not only incalculably outsize us in resources, but will never fight fair. If our eyes are open, it can be done.

MK Lees is an organizer with the Los Angeles IWW and a contributing editor at Organizing Work.