It Takes Two to Tango

It Takes Two to Tango
by P. Gage

As I pulled the gearshift into drive my cell phone was flashing telling me that I had a voicemail. When I got to my next stop I saw I had three messages on my phone now and my voicemail was full. I rubbed my hands together over the vent trying to forget about December in Edmonton. I got curious so I opened my voicemail box as I listened to each message my heart sank further.

“Hello, this message is for Phinneas, my name is Steve and I’m a driver in the same department as you. I understand management has cancelled all of the Christmas overtime for the rest of the month because of the fight you had with them this morning over paying the correct overtime hours.

I’m just calling to tell you how pissed off I am with you. I’m also calling to let you know that I’ve called the union office to let them know about what you did to us and request you have your shop steward status pulled by the local.”

The next two said the same thing coming from two different co-workers. Next I dialed the union office spoke to the Chief Shop Steward for my section and got to the bottom of things.

Earlier that morning I had a massive confrontation with management in the presence of about five sympathetic drivers who were concerned that they were not being paid correctly for the overtime they were working. As the disagreement reached a crescendo Dale, the supervisor in charge, shouted that if we had that much of a problem with how the overtime was being done they would cancel all the overtime.

Calling his bluff I pointed to the mountain of steel cages each one filled with Christmas parcels and asked them how they would get the parcels delivered? He sputtered, hesitated and said he would find a way. We both knew that was bullshit. Figuring I had won I walked away and started my shift before things got too nasty.

As soon as I left Dale took my phone number out of the company computer and told all the workers on my shift that came in after me there was not going to be any overtime. He then told them it was my fault and gave them my number and the union office to call and complain. All of a sudden I realized that the bosses had used a call-in against me, the same tactic I had used against them over another issue two months earlier.

The Thing About Moving Targets…

Sometimes we talk about direct action as if all the crap only flies one way. Too often we see the bosses as passive in this process where they are actually reacting to us. Bosses learn from their mistakes too. Direct action is something employers can use against us too. In any campaign things don’t move on only one side, when we push the employer pushes back. If you are organizing on the floor the boss will be counter organizing, identifying workers that are sympathetic to his or her cause and helping them agitate co-workers against working together.

This was obviously a point scored against me but it was also an important lesson on where people stood in regards to the union. After the calls I knew that there were at least three workers that I hadn’t built enough trust with for them to trust my word over what the boss said about me when I wasn’t around. I also knew that we were strong with the drivers that started when I did and weak with the drivers that start later in the day.

Control over the pace of escalation is set half by the boss and half by the workers; in this case they very effectively escalated the fight beyond my control and threw me on the defensive. The boss is the best organizer you have as long as you anticipate that there will be a struggle for control of the work. The boss can also outwit you sometimes. The lesson was a small one but important.

A few weeks later I had another shop steward come up to me, she usually gives me grief for stirring things up and causing too much controversy. “You’re right”, she says as she scribbles some notes on her manifest. I look at her puzzled. “They really are out to get as much out of us as they can, and all we can do is push back together”. I smiled. Two steps forward one step back.


One Response to “It Takes Two to Tango”

  1. This post makes an important observation about the boss learning from the struggle.
    I work for a mainstream union that is fighting a powerful corporation. Once I asked a senior colleague who holds a leadership position in the union, “What do you think the [company] is learning from us?” and he seemed baffled by the question. Right now, the organizing strategy that the union has employed with this company is working fairly well but it is only a matter of time before the company’s army of consultants and lawyers figures out a way to outflank the union.
    Along with the generally blithe assessment of the union’s ability to outsmart the company at every turn is an apparently sincere glee in recounting various company reactions to the campaign as evidence that the company is “stupid” and that the union is “winning.” There tends to be a lot of black-slapping on the union side when the company puts out a message reacting to one of our actions. We boast about how the company is “freaking out” about our campaign. I think you can call a powerful multi-national corporation many things, but “stupid” is not one of them. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think companies like this actually “freak out” until their stock prices plummet.
    I get a little queasy around people who consistently underestimate the strength of their opponents. With everything we do, even when we are at our most clever, the company is being inoculated against our tactics. Of course this works both ways, but when we start to think of the company as merely inert and reactive, we fail to see how we can learn to fight more effectively.

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