Responding to hot shops

Nate Holdren argues that there is a tension between the urgency of a “hot shop” where workers are frustrated and miserable, and the necessary slow building of organizing.

Work sucks, and usually it’s in the process of getting worse. Maybe it’s getting worse in an immediately apparent way, like a pay cut. Maybe it’s getting worse in a way that’s not immediately apparent, like if you’re short-staffed and the boss says new positions will be filled soon but in the meantime everyone needs to pick up the slack and it turns out to be a huge increase in work.

Martin Glaberman made this a fundamental tenet of his thought: “work sucks, and sooner or later workers are going to resist it in whatever way they can,” he said. “Until someone can tell me that work has become real nice under capitalism, whether in the United States or anywhere else, I say that is the fundamental basis of our theory and our practice.” The thing is, though, sometimes workers’ resistance takes a reactive form — we suddenly find our jobs intolerable, something snaps and we just have to act. That’s understandable, even honorable, but it’s easy to overly romanticize this.    

One term for this kind of a situation is a “hot shop.” Some organizers and radicals mistakenly believe hot shops are powerful and are opportunities. A related and equally pernicious mistake is thinking that worsening conditions will propel people into action, as if workers are just pinballs bouncing around mechanically. This is often a stated rationale for targeting certain sectors or companies where conditions are especially poor: “jobs at WalMart and Amazon are so terrible, we should prioritize organizing here.” While the desperate certainly deserve better, the reality is desperation is a disadvantage. When things get terrible at work and people say “fuck it, I can’t take it anymore” and feel the need to act RIGHT NOW, they are often also very close to saying “fuck it, I can’t take it anymore” and feel the need to quit right now. In fact, the people who approach organizers about their terrible workplace are often the first to quit — or have already quit! — when they say “this place really needs a union.” 

Making sustained changes at work requires exerting power that takes time to build.

Responding adequately to a hot shop is basically impossible — it’s a matter of picking the least bad option. If a group writes off the hot shop and goes “ehhh… good luck!” and just washes their hands, it’s leaving people in the lurch. If it’s treated as an ordinary organizing opportunity, that doesn’t really work either. The conditions tend to be too intense for the slow pace of the early stages of organizing. Making sustained changes at work requires exerting power that takes time to build. If work feels intolerable right now, people are likely to have a hard time putting in the effort for the long term, because they feel a need for immediate relief, for totally understandable reasons. This means people in hot shops are likely to either pop off unexpectedly — starting confrontations without a plan and which can put the effort at a disadvantage — or to simply quit in frustration. Much of the time the best outcome in a hot shop situation is to build some trust, relationships, and skills that form the groundwork for future organizing.

Generally speaking, the best answer for an organizer who encounters a hot shop is to find the smallest issue tolerable to work on and help the group take action on that issue, or to find the smallest action on the issue the group feels they must act on. This is a balancing act between the urgency of people’s sense that things at work are intolerable and their relative disorganization, which is both effect and cause of conditions at work being so bad.

It’s important to be very direct with people and stress that it took a while for things to get so terrible and it will likewise take a while for things to get better. It’s also important to get a sense of the lay of the land at work — to do social mapping — because the people who speak out or contact others for help may not be a representative segment of the workplace and may not be social leaders in the workplace. If that’s the case, these people with urgent needs may be impatient with the longer term parts of organizing because their problems at work are so urgent. Responding to them will mean a balancing act of trying to help deal with their immediate needs and trying to get more information, contacts, and relationship building for more long-term organizing. 

One part of striking that balance involves looking for actions people can take that provide an outlet for their vey real emotional needs due to how terrible work is, without creating problems for the campaign. A lot of stories at Organizing Work offer ideas for actions for people in a hot shop could take. There are resources in the IWW’s organizer training and the Weakening the Dam pamphlet as well. In figuring out actions to take, bear in mind that people in hot shops often overestimate their collective organization — “everyone is ready to strike!” is a common refrain — and underestimate the steps involved in building up a campaign. One goal early on is to help people make the mental shift to thinking like an organizer. That includes having a long term commitment to the campaign, which is not the case with workers who are close to quitting in frustration.

In planning actions, often people in a hot shop will be drawn toward more public and confrontational activity and less toward the more necessary documenting, information gathering, relationship building, and collective deliberation elements of organization. This is part of people’s immediate issues being urgent for them and the slower pace of organizing feeling inadequate. It’s a difficult balancing act. Anyone involved in a hot shop should be aware that it’s likely not going to go especially well no matter what course of action is taken. Most of the decisions are going to feel at best like a mixed bag and be a matter of choosing the least bad option. I don’t say that to be negative, but rather because if we’re aware that this is how it can feel then we can be less distracted by these feelings and make more clear-eyed decisions.    Things are pretty bad for a lot of workers right now, so more people will hit the wall and want to take sudden action. Some of those people will reach out for help to their fellow workers and to unions and other organizations. The unfortunate reality is a lot of those situations will likely not go very well. It’s worth being prepared for that emotionally, and trying to be prepared for what to do in those situations to make them go as well (i.e., least bad) as possible. Hot shops tend to not work out, but then, that’s true of a lot of organizing. The thing is that hot shops tend to fail in ways that leave very little behind: it’s easy for hot shops to subside and leave no groundwork for anything more. As such, while it’s worth trying to respond in a helpful way to hot shops, it’s also important to not get pulled into a strategy centering on them. Instead, radicals should focus on longer-term and less reactive efforts at organizing to build a workers’ movement. That’s the only way we’re going to successfully oppose capitalism and the ways it makes work — and so our lives — suck.

Nate Holdren lives in Iowa. He is the author of the book Injury Impoverished and keeps an occasional blog.