No boss is your friend

David, a former pizza parlor worker, relates this story of extreme union-busting by an allegedly pro-union boss

I was hired on at Scottie’s Pizza Parlor in mid-2018. I had just transitioned out of a low-wage job in a grocery store deli where I had been involved in an organizing effort for almost two years. I was burnt out after trying with my coworkers to rescue the campaign from a bungled operation on the part of UFCW 555 and thorough union-busting on the part of the company, New Seasons Market.

At the time, Scottie’s seemed like the opposite of where I had been working: a small shop with just one location, a significantly higher wage, especially once pooled tips were factored in, predictable scheduling and paid time off (rarities in the service industry), and the little things that seemed nice, too, like reimbursement for solid work shoes, free staff meals and a shift drink, in addition to being able to play whatever music we wanted to.

On top of that, I’d included my organizing experience in my resume, and discussed with Scottie, in my interview, how much I was looking forward to being treated like an actual human being at work. Scottie’s had signs in the window of support for the Burgerville Workers Union and, eventually, the Little Big Union. Scottie himself explicitly said that he supported unions and one day that summer, on a staff trip to the river, he told me excitedly how much he would love to see a pizzaiolo union in Portland. As far as bosses go, he seemed like a good guy and I was glad to be able to talk about working conditions and unions with him.

When I started, there were about seven other people working there (over time, that grew to twelve). Positions were divided into three main categories, with some flexibility between them: cashier/dishwasher, pizza maker, and ovens/expo. The latter two were reserved for those who had been there longer and knew what they were doing. I washed dishes and swiped credit cards and mostly just listened to get a sense of the workplace culture.

The first things I noticed were that Scottie was hardly ever around and that folks were a lot less content than I imagined they’d be. While they loved making pizza and essentially having free rein of the shop, there was a significant amount of tension around their relationship with Scottie. The gist of it was the feeling that he had abandoned the shop and left the workers to pick up the slack while he collected a salary; at the same time, he would periodically do things that had an alienating impact on just about everyone. He would schedule large orders in the middle of the dinner rush, or invite a pizza tour into the parlor and neglect to acknowledge the contribution of the workers standing right behind him. People seemed to both like Scottie as a person and feel frustrated with the way he acted as a boss. They both wanted him to be there, supporting the shop, and resented him when he was there, messing with the efficient routine they’d established.

Unionizing

Over time, talk of unionizing ebbed and flowed. Sales continuously grew and the shop added workers. Communication grew increasingly inconsistent. Eventually, Scottie accepted the reality that he was not managing the space and hired a manager from outside the shop, who did her best to support us in the ways Scottie was neither able nor willing to do. There was a precarious balance, which finally shifted when Scottie decided to remodel the space in mid-2019, dramatically altering the workflow and speeding everything up. Though he made a show of trying to include worker input, the final decision was ultimately his.

The new routine was awkward and challenging to adapt to, which heightened the stress and tension in the shop. Suddenly my coworkers wanted to meet outside of work to talk about how terrible the change was. We communicated through the web of relationships that had grown organically in the shop and met several times to determine what was important to us and to decide whether or not we should formally unionize. The union was rooted in the community we had made together, supporting one another.

We decided to go the IWW route, declaring our union to Scottie in the late summer, in a petition lovingly calligraphed by a coworker, signed by the entire shop. A group of workers “surprised” Scottie one morning with the petition, flowers, and champagne, toasting the event that Scottie had always said he desired.

Our intention was to use our collective voice to have greater input in the decisions that were being made. We shared a desire to collectively manage the place we were essentially already collectively managing through workplace conditioning. We wanted more control over what was happening to us via executive decision-making that didn’t take into account what we were doing and dealing with. Most of my coworkers trusted Scottie to engage with us in good faith, taking him at his word. Many of us, myself included, wanted to believe the public-facing messaging of the shop: that this was a pro-worker space, where people’s lives and livelihoods were given serious care and consideration. We hoped that this would reverse the bizarre (but probably commonplace) dynamic of an absent boss making decisions that had no effect on him. We were starting to talk about what bargaining might look like when COVID hit.

The pandemic was a crisis that loomed swiftly on the horizon and then descended on Portland. Nobody knew exactly how to respond in the beginning, and Scottie’s was no exception. We started talking about it on the shop floor maybe two weeks before shelter-in-place began. “Anybody worried about coronavirus?” “Are we going to be safe?” “What should we do?” As it became clear that it was a real threat, we began to worry about maintaining a safe and hygienic work environment, and about contact with customers. We expressed some of our concerns via the restaurant’s internal communication system. All we were told was to wash our hands after doing anything (nearly impossible under normal restaurant circumstances, and definitely impossible with our new workflow). We were looking for a conversation, and did not receive much in return. We were forced to take matters into our own hands.

The biggest action the union ever took was on a Monday morning in mid-March, before the shelter-in-place order became our reality. After a week of internal union communication around our concerns and an utter lack of communication from Scottie around worker and community safety (we and our then-manager were unable to reach him for several days), we decided to close the parlor for the day to disinfect and formulate a safety strategy. Scottie was informed of this, and swiftly showed up to make sure we opened. Workers confronted him and he acquiesced to our demand that the parlor cease serving slices immediately, and move to only doing take-out pizza. Later, after a staff meeting, Scottie confronted a union worker, frustrated at how much money the temporary closure had cost him. The worker’s response: “When did this become profits over people?”

We demanded a meeting with Scottie to discuss our options, and he agreed. We came with proposals for how to adapt to the new circumstances based on the input of all the workers. We wanted to figure out a way to keep working, to make sure that everyone was getting the hours they needed to pay their bills and keep their healthcare. We entered this conversation in the good faith assumption that Scottie would try to work out a new system with us. We believed that he had our best interest in mind.

The day after the meeting, he informed us that, sadly, he had decided to lay us all off temporarily. We accepted, believing that we would help the business survive, with the expectation that we would be rehired in the future. 

Three months later, after virtually no communication, we received a collective email stating that he had decided to move forward without us, and that our layoffs were to be permanent.

Reflections

It is tempting for us, as human beings, to believe that we can have a good relationship with a progressive employer. Scottie as a human being is decent and well-intentioned. I believe that this version of Scottie does support unions. His partner is involved in the labor movement and is even an IWW member. We continuously gave him the benefit of the doubt where having a job was concerned. But this perspective neglects to attend to the intrinsic power interests of bosses.

We felt personally betrayed by Scottie. Yet the actions he took in this situation were, at their root, deeply impersonal. A boss is structurally required by the logic of capitalism to act in their own self-interest. In relationship to us (those who are compelled to sell our labor in order to pay rent) he is the one not only with the immense power to decide whether or not we have jobs tomorrow, but with the vested interest in a business that is legally his property, compelling him to act for himself, to consider himself first. In other words, Scottie the boss is unable to keep the promises made by Scottie the human being. Scottie the human being could (and did!) have feelings about his own actions; Scottie the boss is empowered to do whatever he wants. And when shit hits the fan, a boss is a boss. 

The fact of the matter is that Scottie, falling in line with innumerable bosses, used the Covid crisis as a cover to lay off the entirety of his unionized workforce. To tell any other kind of story is disingenuous. According to his communication with us, the decision to lay us all off permanently was an intentional, premeditated decision — he had already been thinking about it before the pandemic hit. 

After his public announcement regarding the layoffs — which we disputed in our own public statement — much of the community that myself and my coworkers had served for years came out, not in support of us who had just lost our jobs, but Scottie and his decision! People publicly expressed sympathy for how hard it must have been to make the decision, rather than outrage at the way we were disposed of. We aren’t the only workers to have ever experienced the bizarre way in which restaurants are treated as people with the capacity for suffering while workers are ignored or dehumanized, but it still stung.

In the end, the workers who oversaw the growth of the business became collateral. We were tossed aside like an old pizza oven that has outlived its usefulness. We were expendable to Scottie not because Scottie is evil, but because capitalist logic renders us expendable in his eyes. In retrospect, his actions were predictable. Bosses will always use the murkiness of human relationships to their own advantage, whether they know they are doing it or not. That’s the way power works. And when we forget about power, we get burned.

We lost our jobs, that’s true, but what we learned, as coworkers and as allies pushing together for what is right and just, will accompany us to every future job, more resilient and better prepared for whatever bosses throw at us. The true joy of organizing is not that we win recognition or a better contract (although those things are wonderful in their own right), but that we are actively involved in cultivating relationships of mutuality, dignity, and respect that are the foundation of building a new world in the shell of the old. The strength of these relationships is what empowers us to assert our own collective vision about what our workplaces should look like.

David Sqrl

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