Useful lessons from a failed collective action

The stumbling blocks to successful collective action are important to be aware of. Here, an IT worker relates a story.

I have long supported unions and criticized the wage labor system and capitalism in general, but it is only recently that I overcame my mental barriers and began getting directly involved with labor organizing. Specifically, I have been meeting with organizers from the IWW, attending Organizer Training 101, and applying what I’ve learned to organize my workplace and launch actions. I am early in my campaign, but I recently participated in my first labor action, and have some thoughts to share on this subject.

First, some background: I work in IT security at a large mortgage company in the upper Midwest. The business model of this company is highly questionable, but I personally rationalize my participation with the belief that, because I work to keep their data secure, I am minimizing the harm caused by the data they’ve already collected, rather than helping them harm even more people. I’m sure there are holes in that, but it gets me through the day.

One of the main grievances at my workplace is a complete lack of flexibility — specifically, a complete ban on working from home. The company, like most others, converted to full work-from-home when it was legally required to during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but once this requirement was lifted, they brought everybody back into the office. I am relatively new to the company, but I am told by people who have been there for a while and even by upper management during presentations that, prior to the pandemic, the company had no issue with workers working from home on occasion.

Since bringing people back into the office, the company has gotten progressively more restrictive, culminating in the current policy: you either show up at the office or take PTO/unpaid time off — it doesn’t matter if you feel uncomfortable crowding into auditoriums with over a thousand people during the height of Omicron with no mask requirement or the possibility of distancing… there are no exceptions (except for some of the higher-ups and their personal friends, of course). It doesn’t even matter if you test positive for COVID-19 – an FAQ sent to team leaders instructed them not to share information about COVID cases. In short, the company has become even less flexible than it was before the pandemic, and as a consequence is pushing a great deal of risk onto the workers while denying them any of the tools they need to protect themselves.

This policy is widely unpopular among the workers, but some recent winter weather truly tested our endurance. Weather predictions called for massive snowfall over the span of two days. All local schools closed in advance, and the news put forth urgent recommendations that people stay off the roads and take the opportunity to work from home if possible. In response, the company sent out an announcement reiterating that no work from home was allowed, and that anybody who did not show up would have to either take PTO or not get paid. Additionally, they suggested that anyone concerned about making it to work on time or about driving safety should stay at a nearby hotel! They advertised a “special rate” they had negotiated with the hotel for this purpose, but it was still more than what many workers make in a day. This was posted on the internal company website, which includes a comment section. Many comments were critical of this downright spiteful “offer,” including one comment that remarked “this is so dystopian.” The person who posted that comment was promptly fired.

This resulted in a great deal of anger among the workers, to the point that a worker from a nearby team approached my team and suggested that all of us should take the day off and leave the company shorthanded. He said that several others were planning to do this, and recommended we consider doing so as well. One of people on my team, Colin (not his real name), was enthusiastically in favor. He urged the 5 people on my team to do this as well.

I was excited at this — I had been considering this sort of action myself, and had already identified Colin as a natural leader in my social mapping. Colin is a loud voice on my team, frequently proposing topics of conversation that others end up talking about, and others often look to him when considering team activities and decide yes or no based on what Colin ends up doing.

But I was also a bit hesitant — I was still early in my organizing efforts and hadn’t yet had one-on-ones with Colin or my teammates (though we had all previously discussed our grievances as a group), let alone the other teams or the wider IT department. In my ideal world, I wouldn’t have attempted such an action at that time. But Colin was on board and actively urging others to undertake the action, and the weather seemed to present a good opportunity, and the action seemed small-scale and attainable (my team of five plus others on other teams, calling the company’s bluff). So I voiced my support for it as well, and set up a Signal chat for all my teammates (minus our team lead, of course) to allow us to communicate and coordinate.

The plan we agreed on was this: we would all independently message our team lead the morning of the storm and offer to work from home, and if declined would take PTO. The Signal chat would allow us to share what we said and what we were told by the team lead — this would ensure nobody could be singled out, and would also give us a method of keeping each other’s’ spirits up in the event anyone got nervous. Four out of my five teammates were in on the plan (the fifth declined to participate). I went to sleep excited at the prospect of this first, very modest exercise of organized action.

But when morning came, things started unraveling.

Colin is the first one on my team to go into work in the morning — he goes in around 6:30 am, while others arrive around 7:30-8:30 am, and I start at 9 am (this staggered arrangement gives us coverage for a greater portion of the day while still giving us overlapping time to collaborate) — so Colin would be the first to message our team lead. But at about 6:30 Colin messaged us all and told us that the roads were bad. One of my other team mates, Danielle (also not a real name), asked Colin whether he had gone in. Colin answered that yes, he had. I messaged the group and reiterated my intention to call our team lead, offer to work from home, and take PTO if declined. I did this, as did another teammate, Roger. Danielle didn’t say anything further, but when I followed up with her later that morning she told me that she had decided to go in after all, since Colin, the most vocal person on the team, had folded. My last remaining teammate, Jackie, had been opposed to the action in the first place, and predictably chose to go in.

The final count for my team was a bit disappointing: two people called out (me and Roger), while three went in (Colin, Danielle, and Jackie). The other teams had roughly similar levels of success, based on what I was able to determine after. In the end, nobody ended up being punished, but we did not substantially disrupt business operations, either, and thus did not manage to win any additional flexibility.

I was initially upset with Colin for urging the team to undertake the action only to immediately fold, but I gave myself time to let any irritation fade and pushed myself to be empathetic and understanding. I approached Colin a few days after and asked him about what happened – “Colin, I was hoping to understand a bit more what happened. It seemed like you were pretty enthusiastic about calling out. Is everything okay?”

Colin clearly felt a bit embarrassed, but after assuring him I wasn’t angry and wasn’t going to hold it against him and just wanted to understand, he told me that he lives very close to our team lead, and he was afraid that, if he called out but our team lead went in, he would look bad to our team lead. I validated his concern and assured him that we would have other opportunities. I did similar follow-ups for Danielle and Roger, and similarly assured them we would have other opportunities.

So what are my takeaways from this?

First off, even though the action was largely a failure (we didn’t even get 50% participation or make any substantive progress towards winning greater flexibility), there were many smaller successes within it — we established a degree of trust and frankness on my team that has already helped organizing efforts, and the Signal chat communication method has given us a safe place outside of work to talk and coordinate and build solidarity.

Second, this taught me a good lesson about natural leaders — I had correctly identified Colin as a natural leader with influence over others on my team, but I had *not* been prepared for Colin himself to defer to our team lead, nor done any inoculation to this effect.

Third, it showed me the necessity of thinking through the progression of an action in detail — who will be the first people to act? Who will be the first to encounter resistance/reprimand? How can we help them feel confident that the rest of us will have their back if they start a disruption? Are there any special relationships or vulnerabilities that might prevent the leading edge of the action from acting that I can anticipate and head off?

Fourth, it showed me the importance of building a solid base before attempting even seemingly minor actions — as I mentioned, this occurred quite early in my organizing efforts, and while we all shared many grievances, we had not achieved a level of organization that allowed us to act on them. In other words, being upset about something is not the same as taking coordinated, well-prepared steps to address it — Agitation is the first step of AEIOU, while Union is last.

Fifth, it showed me the importance of basing actions on solid organizing, not moment-by-moment opportunity — this action relied quite heavily on weather conditions, which are fleeting and unpredictable. The forecast predicted heavy snow, and we did indeed get heavy snow, but not as much as was initially predicted. The possibility of getting less, and of people waking up and, in a moment of fear, rationalizing to themselves that the roads aren’t that bad, introduces variables that undermine people’s confidence.

Ultimately, I am glad to have participated in this action. Obviously it would have been better if we had succeeded, but there is a great deal to learn even from failure, and I will carry these insights and this memory with me in my future organizing efforts.