By Alexandra Bradbury, Jane Slaughter and Mark Brenner for LaborNotes
This article is excerpted from the Labor Notes book Secrets of a Successful Organizer, available for $15 at labornotes.org/secrets.
Steel production in the late 1800s used to require one crucial step: a 20-minute process called the “blow” that removed impurities, strengthening the metal. It was not unheard of for union members to go to the supervisor at the start of the blow and demand that some important grievance be resolved.
According to old-timers, it was amazing what the company could accomplish in those 20 minutes. These workers had found their employer’s vulnerability— and they used it to make the workplace safer and more humane.
Think about where your employer is vulnerable. For some companies it might be their logo or their image, which they have spent millions of dollars cultivating. For others it might be a bottleneck in the production process, or a weakness in their just-in-time inventory system.
POWERFUL WAYS TO ACT
- Disrupt the flow of work, the chain of command, or the employer’s control over workers. Disruption gets attention, and often gets results.
- Alter and improve. Some things we can change simply by doing them differently: slow down production, take a longer break, or change the way work is organized. Once something is changed, it’s harder for the employer to change it back.
- Take control. When the boss gives an order, he sets a chain of events in motion. When we act collectively, we start a chain of events in a different direction.
WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK
At a Fortune 500 truck factory, supervisors were ruthless and degrading. Discipline was arbitrary and unjust. At the monthly union meeting one worker noted that they were all being “railroaded.”
A few weeks later, 2,000 plastic whistles shaped like locomotives arrived at the local. The instructions were simple: whenever you can see a supervisor on the shop floor, blow your whistle.
At first, whistles were going off all over. But by the morning break the plant floor was quiet. Not a single supervisor dared to show his face.
The next day in contract bargaining, the employer refused to bargain until the whistles were removed. The bargaining team noted the company’s statements on refusing to bargain, and asked for a break to go call the Labor Board.
Bargaining resumed immediately, with positive results.
LUNCH TO RULE
On a military base, aircraft maintenance workers would happily interrupt their lunch in order to deal with urgent problems. But in return they had an understanding that, once the problem was solved, they would go back to their sandwiches even though the lunch period had ended.
The situation was mutually acceptable for several years—until a new supervisor came along. We all know how that is. Had to prove himself. Show who’s boss. Etc.
Steve Eames, an international rep for the Boilermakers union, explained that the new supervisor insisted that workers take their lunch between 12:00 and 12:30, period.
“So the steward said, ‘Okay, we’ll play by the rules,’” Eames remembers. The maintenance workers had previously eaten at a lunch table in the work area. But now, when 12 o’clock came, they left and went to a fast-food restaurant on the base. For three or four days they all went as a group, leaving the shop unattended.
One day a plane came in during the half-hour lunch period. No one was there to help bring the plane in, or to check it out. The supervisor had to park the plane by himself.
“The boss went and talked to the steward, and the steward said, ‘That’s our time, we’re at lunch,’” said Eames. “‘You got what you wanted.’”
The workers went out for lunch for a couple more days, and then they ended what we might call “lunch to rule.” “They didn’t want to file a grievance,” says Eames, “because the company would have won on the basis of contract language.
“Without anything in writing, it went back to the way it had been before. It empowered the guys. It told the supervisor, we’ll be a little flexible if you’ll be flexible.”
KEEP THE BOSS OFF BALANCE
Managers like routine. They like to know that what happened yesterday will happen today and that no one is thinking too hard about it. You can make them nervous simply by doing something different, even something normal that would be unthreatening to the non-managerial mind. When they have to keep guessing where the next shot is coming from, you have the upper hand.
“The corporate culture is not a creative culture,” says Joe Fahey, a former Teamster leader, “and we need to look at that as an opportunity.
“I used to bargain with Smuckers,” Fahey recalls. “We decided to do things that would freak them out. Factory life is very predictable. The workers decided to take their breaks at the railroad tracks, instead of at the same table and the same bench that they did every day. It was easy for the workers to do, but it was scary for management. They are more easily scared than we realize.”
Pennsylvania social workers figured out how to catch management off guard. During negotiations with the state, spokesman Ray Martinez said, “we wanted an activity that would irritate the boss, educate the public, and at the same time get the members psyched up. We decided that we would all take our 15-minute breaks at the same time.”
The union used its phone trees to call members at home. “At the agreed date and time,” Martinez says, “all of our members would get up and walk out of the office. This meant that clients in the office, phone calls, and so on would be placed on hold. In other words, all activity ceased.
“This served a couple of purposes. First, management and clients would get a feel for what it would be like without our services if we were to go on strike. Secondly, we, the members, would be outside of the worksite having outdoor shop meetings and updating the workers on the latest on the negotiations.
“While this was going on, we had picket signs asking drivers to honk their horns to show us their support. The beauty of it all was that this was perfectly legal, so there was nothing management could do.”
At the end of the 15-minute break, everybody went back inside and went back to work.
A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #520. Don’t miss an issue, subscribe today.