Fighting police brutality from the retail shop floor

CF Ivanovic reflects on a time he and his coworkers stood up to management calling the police on community members

Since video surfaced of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25 the United States have seen an eruption of protests, often breaking pandemic protocol and state curfews alike. In brave acts of solidarity from workers, union transit drivers in the Twin Cities and New York have refused to transport busloads of protesters to jail, in Columbus, Ohio restaurant workers at Condado Tacos walked out, refusing to make an order of 500 tacos for police officers.

Police murders of marginalized people should be seen as a labor issue, and as a restaurant industry issue. George Floyd was murdered outside of the Minneapolis deli Cup Foods after management called the police when Floyd allegedly paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. An unarmed Black man was brutally killed by the officer, over a dispute with a business owner amounting to a pack of cigarettes. The scenario of management, and sometimes staff, of a restaurant or retail business calling the police on a Black man is one that is familiar to almost anyone who has worked in the industry. Workers on the front lines perform de-escalation tactics all the time, often in dangerous and uncertain circumstances; however management’s second line defense is almost always bringing in the police. It is the default step management uses to resolve conflicts that affect profit, whether it is workers picketing to demand better wages, people loitering at a business, or shoplifting. The cops being called into the workplace is a safety concern, for workers and customers alike. This standard practice by management gambles with human life, and the only way workers change it is by taking collective action.    

If we are to take seriously the IWW slogan of, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” workers in the labor movement need to do more to think and act in solidarity with Black liberation struggles. This does not mean we ought to sprint to the front of the protest line and make demands on behalf of those we do not represent. Rather, a fighting revolutionary union should think deeply and critically about how our workplace committees are tied to the struggle, and where we can leverage power to change industries run by bosses who benefit from their collaboration with the police.

The case of Little Big Burger

One such action took place while I was working at Little Big Burger. Our shop was a block away from the major hospital for Downtown and Westside Portland, so despite being in one of the most expensive neighborhoods of the city, there were a lot of working class and homeless people who hung around for medical services. The store was made up of a majority White workers, with one Black worker, a few Mexican workers as well. However, unusually for LBB, it was majority queer women, trans, and non-binary workers. While we were not yet public as a union, membership in this particular shop was at an all-time high, with every worker having either been to meetings, participated in an action, and signed up to the union. 

After our manager had resigned, the shop had organized so no worker would take the management position if offered. We had been operating without a day-to-day manager for nearly four months, while a General Manager who covered a half dozen stores came in once or twice a week to make our schedules. It was the only time in my almost 3 years at the company when nobody quit.

At the beginning of 2019, we finally got a new store manager — a White woman who transferred from another store. She immediately imposed a ton of new rules that pissed off all the long-time workers and union members in the shop. One of these new practices was strictly enforcing the soda machine for customers who only took water cups. This was a practice that particularly targeted homeless people and young Black kids, whereas before we would often let whoever in to use the bathroom or refill their water and didn’t police the soda machine (soda has by far the lowest food cost anyway). Our manager went as far as to instruct a shift lead to call the police on a literal child if he ever came back, a request the worker just laughed at and disregarded. These new management practices went along with aggressive micromanaging of workers.

On her second day of being manager, she bragged to me and a longtime union-member shift lead that she had called the police on a Black man who was bleeding from the head because he demanded to use the phone to call an ambulance. She was clearly fishing for approval, but instead the co-worker asked if the man was alright, and I asked why she wouldn’t call an ambulance. She got defensive and said, “he was bleeding all over the store and scared some kids.” 

At least two workers at her previous store had put in HR complaints about her implementing the soda cup practice but nothing came of it other than someone from corporate saying “we don’t have a soda cup policy, your manager is mistaken.” Not a month later, one of the people who reported the manager was fired without any reason given after working there for over two years.

Workers were agitated, but whenever the manager would get called out she would get quiet and act like speaking up together was “bullying her.” As the months went on it became clear we’d have to take action in a more clear way. The breaking point came when the manager called the police on a homeless man having a rough mental health episode. A co-worker came up to me and said how fucked up it was seeing him get harassed in front of the store for nothing. I suggested we use a behavioral health social worker line, who could intervene instead of the police as long as the person did not have a weapon or threaten to hurt others. The co-worker agreed and she suggested we put the number up on our employee board as well as by the phone, asking the manager to call that instead. However, the next day the number was erased and the note by the phone was missing. 

We decided that the next time the manager said she was going to call the police those of us on shift would intervene. About a week later, a Black man was camped outside about 15 feet from the door. He was smoking a cigarette, but could barely hold it up because he was shaking so much. Again, our manager jumped to the occasion to call the police, but this time we marched on the boss. Three of us approached her, standing in front of the path to the phone, and started to ask questions:

“Did he threaten you?”
“Does he have a weapon?”
“What if you called this behavioral health line instead of the police?”
“We’re going to leave the number up in the back to remind people that this resource exists”

Workers shared their stories about bad experiences with the police along with the story of a Black man in mental health crisis who was killed by Portland Police two years prior. This time the power dynamic shifted. Instead of talking down to us and arguing, she acquiesced. (Before the mental health professionals were even able to show, the man had left the area.) This time the number wasn’t erased from the employee board, as we’d made it clear how we wanted these situations handled safely. As for our manager, I think she was legit scared we were all going to call her a racist in front of customers.

Continuing worker enforcement

After an incredibly vicious anti-union campaign, the Little Big Union lost an NLRB certification election. Since over a dozen pro-union workers were fired and the high turnover in fast food continued, the company was successful in crushing the first round of organizing. It’s unclear if the policy about calling the police is still in place, but I heard from a member still in the shop that the number got erased from the employee board again. While the organizing was valuable, and I know union members have taken what they saw in the Little Big Union to various other jobs in the food service industry and beyond, it points to something incomplete in our organizing. The breaking of this strong shop committee meant our wins were difficult to sustain. A policy won through direct action is only as good as the workers’ ability to enforce it—union contract or not. 

Despite this, workers continue to agitate and organize around these issues. The bottom line is that calling the police is such an unconscious norm in the restaurant and retail industries; often bosses do not even think twice to bring armed law enforcement into our shops. If workers want to change the culture of their industry, whether the issue is wages or getting police to stop harassing and killing Black people, it will take a battle with management.