When bosses play the victim

Rachel Stafford takes on bosses who claim to be bullied by worker organizing.

(Image: anti-union cartoon from Saturday Night magazine, 1905)

Recently, the president of the university I work for went on something of a speaking tour, meeting with all staff members to “listen” and “connect.” He’s extremely brand-conscious, so we’re used to these dog-and-pony shows. But instead of the usual upbeat messaging (“Everything is awesome! We’re doing great things!”), we got treated to an over-the-top display of vulnerability… his feelings had been hurt, and he wanted to talk about bullying.

It was all incredibly vague; at no point did he address actual things that had happened or been said. But coming in the midst of a particularly bitter round of negotiations with my union, the goal was obvious. He wanted to shame us all into keeping our criticisms and grievances to ourselves.

Some of my coworkers were initially pretty shaken. They started replaying their participation in collective actions, thinking, “Have I crossed a line? Am I a bully?” But then we got together for an impromptu team meeting. We turned the focus back on the administration’s intransigent stance at the bargaining table. We mocked the president’s calculated performance (he even had a hand on his chest and a mournful gaze!). Eventually we talked each other out of our guilt and came away angry at his nasty trick. How dare he try to make us feel guilty for standing up for ourselves!

I’m sharing this story because I think it is relevant for organizing everywhere. Guilt and shame can be really effective union-busting tactics. That’s why bosses are pretty quick to use them. But solid inoculation, and good planning, can prevent these tricks from doing damage to our organizing, and actually make us stronger and more united.

Who’s bullying whom?

Nearly every organizer has some version of my story—supervisors rolling out crocodile tears at the slightest provocation, managers claiming they’re being harassed, attacked, threatened, bullied. I’ve heard of a boss claiming that workers airing their grievances made him feel like a rape victim blamed for wearing a short skirt. Another boss, targeted by a phone zap, had his wife text an organizer that “the harassment must stop,” only to later turn around and phone that same organizer 20 times in an hour. University bosses (not at my institution) called the cops on student organizers who had arrived for a scheduled appointment. Fired workers have been called bullies for filing labour board complaints. Bosses have fabricated physical altercations on pickets to lend credibility to their claims of being harassed.

I could go on. This kind of response is so common I usually pull out some version of it when roleplaying the boss in organizer trainings—I’ve gotten pretty good at crying on demand.

It’s natural that bosses do in fact feel threatened by organizing. Organizing is about shifting the balance of power away from the boss and towards the workers. When it becomes overt and the boss’s authority is challenged, that threat can feel personal, especially in workplaces where managers and workers mingle daily.

But the first thing to remember is that threats to bosses’ power are not in the same league as the constant threats workers contend with every day—the threat of losing one’s job, of not making rent, of having to put up with humiliation and disrespect and lack of control.

That doesn’t mean I recommend trying to argue this point with bosses. That’s a rabbit hole where their logic gets really convoluted, really fast. When we pointed out the disconnect between what our president talks about—respect, compassion, and integrity—and what he does, he said people were “weaponizing our shared values.” Talk about the boss’ contradictions with your coworkers, but don’t try to argue the point with the boss, because it will quickly descend into some version of “I know you are but what am I?” You’re never going to win that fight.

Not wanting to be a jerk

When bosses claim to be bullied, that can have a chilling effect on organizing. I don’t want to downplay that.

Most of us are socialized to avoid conflict and preserve others’ feelings. Confrontational tactics like marches on the boss can leave people second-guessing themselves. Those tactics are effective precisely because there’s an inversion of the usual power dynamic — there’s strength in numbers against the boss, and the boss can genuinely feel scared. Some tears are genuine and unplanned.

Sometimes, too, we’re stuck targeting bosses who are low on the chain of command and who genuinely feel squeezed by both sides — scared to lose their job but intimidated by a collective show of strength. An emotional display from a manager, especially a new or a nice one, can seriously undermine support for organizing.

Also, sometimes the optics are bad. Think about an action that looks, at least from the outside, like a bunch of white guys yelling at a woman of color. I know of an instance where that killed the campaign. Outreach became impossible because no one wanted to be associated with that incident.

It’s generally not a good idea to yell in a march on the boss. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how calm and collected you are. The only action I’ve participated in that made a supervisor cry was when we all just silently turned our backs on him in a staff meeting.

Often, bosses don’t even have to roll out these shows of emotion. I’ve seen workers consider even extremely low-level actions like circulating a petition a form of bullying. Even in entirely fabricated role-playing scenarios in organizer trainings, participants often express discomfort with confrontation and say they dislike feeling like they’ve ganged up on someone.

Although we can feel some compassion for bosses as individuals, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t organize for the improvements we deserve. So what’s the solution?

What to do about it

There’s a reason the IWW’s organizer trainings dedicate a good chunk of time to inoculation, where we give our coworkers a heads-up about what the boss is likely to do and say when our organizing becomes overt. When workers anticipate the boss’ actions and rhetoric, they’re less scared and those tactics are less effective.

Winning our demands involves taking risks — including risks of hurting feelings — and fear holds us back from taking those risks. Inoculation gives shape to the formidable but formless blob of “what might happen,” helping us pick it apart and see it for what it is: a bunch of tactics to undermine the collective strength and confidence of workers, and shift the balance of power back toward the boss.

Some bosses get mean when they sniff a union in the air, but some get nice. And some play the victim. Our inoculation conversations have to prepare our coworkers for many different possibilities. We should help workers connect the dots between what their particular boss might do and what bosses everywhere do when faced with workers standing up for themselves. We want to get to the point where our coworkers see the boss’ attempts to guilt and shame them as a power-tripping, predictable, petty form of union busting.

For that matter, inoculation should always connect back to agitation and education. We agitate to fuel the determination to win, and educate to help understand power—who has it now, who should have more, and how we might shift that balance.

We can also be thoughtful about how we plan actions. We need to consider how the optics might be used against us. It’s worth thinking of race and gender when “casting” the roles for the march on the boss, and potential witnesses (have they been inoculated?). We should align the tone of our actions with the culture of the workforce — a march on the boss in a letter carrier’s depot might be pretty raucous while preschool teachers might use the same tactic more quietly (but just as firmly).

We should be sensitive to how our coworkers experience feelings of guilt and shame, and how these may be manipulated by bosses. But we should never, ever give up on building worker power. When workers are properly inoculated against boss tactics, and truly believe they deserve to have power, they can weather any storm.