Being the bigger person

Being the bigger person

Union organizer with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union dispels the sentiment that 'being the better person' must entail living as a doormat.

I’m so sick of being told to be the bigger person. I get all the scrutiny. I should forgive the unforgivable. I should move on with my life, let it go, drop it, stop being confrontational, stop rocking the boat, stop holding grudges, and be the bigger person. When did “being the bigger person” mean just accepting being treated like shit?

I’m told not to create an “us against them” feeling between worker and employer. I did not create that. Employers created it and long before I was even born. It has always and will always be us, working ourselves to near death, against them, not lifting a finger to help but reaping all the spoils.

I fight this system of oppression because of all the love I have in me. It is because I’m capable of great love that I am able to meet a coworker and know that I will fight for them regardless of who they are, the size of their families, where they are from, how they do their job, what languages they speak, and traditions they keep. Even if they can't fight for me, I will fight for them. It is because I think we’re all truly worth something that I fight. Not everyone thinks like me. In fact, I think most people in American society are taught to never trust anyone. Everyone wants something from you, every boyfriend will cheat, every friend betray you, every parent leave you, every coworker steal credit for your work, every person asking directions will eventually ask for change, too. I don’t see it that way. Every person that I meet I make a concerted effort to trust their words, listen to their stories, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Despite popular belief, I do this with bosses, too, to some extent.

Now, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt does not mean sticking your head into the lion’s mouth just because you haven’t met this particular lion. The lion is still hungry. When it is a coworker you are on equal ground and not much is at risk in giving them a chance. As for bosses, the lions in this scenario, everything about that relationship puts you, as a worker, at risk while the boss risks nothing. As a union organizer that’s been around a while I’m too aware of the tricks they use against us and they tend to set off alarms in my head when I see them. Union busting has its buzz words and slogans just like advertising. “Hi, how ya feeling today?” That is called a ‘health check’ in the Creating the Starbucks Environment course management is required to take that discusses exclusively what you are supposed to do when there is union activity in your store. The ‘health check’ is meant to be done to every worker. It is supposed to give the impression that they truly are concerned for each individual. It’s meant to open up a possible line of communication between manager and worker where the worker can state any random work issue, the boss then can pretend to take it to heart and will promise to get back to them. This stalls the worker. The worker feels that their concern has been heard and something is being done about it. Somewhere, behind closed doors, in meetings we can’t properly imagine, this concern is being taken very seriously and the people paid the big bucks will surely find a solution. They often times wait weeks to hear back from the boss, if ever, and the issue is never resolved. The ‘health check’ already served its purpose. It gave the appearance of caring while letting a worker vent, which is usually where most concerns end. Also, it means the boss heard the concern so it can hopefully die as an issue before it reaches the ear of a unionist who may have the skills to blow the concern up and rally workers to that cause. Thus creating the greater problem of workers uniting for real change on the job and possibly gaining a victory from their own collective efforts. One victory undoubtedly leads to several others. Several victories lead to worker control. Worker control makes the boss obsolete.

There are many other phrases that a manager will say that make it clear to me which side they have decided to be on. The majority of middle management, in my experience, is conflicted. They have usually been a barista, grew up working class, and maybe their folks are in unions. Those managers just don’t use the buzz words as much. Sure, they must know them but I think the words probably taste bitter in their mouths so they rarely, if ever, say them. I can have some respect for that. They should still not be bosses, under any circumstance. Having been homeless before I would choose that over becoming someone’s overseer, and also I rarely, if ever, have seen it come down to those two choices. There are other ways to pay bills besides being a boss. They are more difficult but that is part of “being the bigger person” in my mind.

There are people who feel I must spend all my waking hours dwelling on my hatred of bosses. I must be so full of hate and rage that one day it will turn to cancer and take my life. They say to let it go, “be the bigger person”, forgive and forget. They say my rage is hurting me, hurting others unnecessarily and bad for my health. I can say without a doubt that I spend way more of my time laughing with my friends, having awesome consensual safer sex, and just being a listening ear for comrades from all over the world than I waste time dwelling on those that have hurt me, period, bosses included. Bosses are thought of and discussed in strategy discussions and meetings. They are brought up only when they’ve hurt someone, went back on their word, or failed to do their job properly. They already control so much of my time in relationship to work that I don’t see the point in wasting much time thinking about them when I’m at home. When a boss is fucking up a lot, hurting a lot of people, yes, they take up more of my time but their actions are out of my control. Anyone who wants me to stop talking about them must take it up with Starbucks management. Tell them to stop being so hateful, to “be the bigger person”, to treat workers with respect, to drop it, and to move on.

Posted By

Liberté Locke
Dec 29 2011 00:56


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Juan Conatz
Dec 29 2011 01:51

You're totally right about this. The "being the bigger person" thing is wack because people see it to mean having passive acceptance of their situation. I always drew this up to the "protestant work ethic" although I don't know enough about this (other than the phrase) to know if this is true.

Not saying other places don't have variations on this, but the 'American dream' probably plays a part in the manifestation of this attitude. I think those of us who live in the States don't notice this as much, but Andrew Flood, an Irish anarchist, noted this during his time here:

[...]the North American cult of the rugged individual and the American dream not only make popular organizing difficult but seeps into the anarchist movement like a poison.

He's talking about the U.S. anarchist movement specifically, but the point applies to workers more generally of course. There's a sentiment that you're supposed to put up with bullshit and be pious. If you do this, you'll eventually be rewarded in some monetary way or be in a higher position where you don't have to deal with this.

But this breaks down different in different groups though. I can only talk about my own work experience, which is not retail and is more warehousing and manufacturing, but the 'bigger person' thing is way more prevalent among younger workers and immigrant workers than any other group. Among older white workers and black workers there's a way more defeatist attitude. That optimism that seems necessary for a 'be a bigger person' attitude just doesn't exist. A more common obstacle is fear of losing one of the few remaining jobs in this industry and/or a memory of the many defeats workers in these industries have suffered since the early 80s.

Anyway, I'm kinda rambling, but thanks for posting this, Liberte, you know I'm a geek for analyzing dynamics around work and workplace organizing.

Liberté Locke
Dec 29 2011 03:28

I really think you have some great points, Juan. The pious aspect really rings true. People tell me to be the bigger person & not be confrontational because the person being awful that I'm reacting to or against (the boss) will some how magically "get theirs" in the end. As if justice will somehow be served while I'm behaving & the boss is getting away with everything. I instead argue that we as workers be placing judgement on those that keep us chained (and let's remember that is a reality for many workers worldwide & even sweatshop workers localized in the states - so I'm not being metaphorical) & we deliver the justice needed. It does remind me of the song lyric, "work & pray, live on hay, there'll be pie in the sky when you die." But I want pie now, ya know?

Dec 29 2011 06:18

I appreciate this post but I want to add a couple of thoughts based on my own experience as a someone who is trying to organize in her workplace. I've noticed that my co-workers feel less comfortable around me if I'm always blasting away, full speed ahead in the fight. I have to be human enough to recognize that sometimes we all just want a break from fighting everything all the time. Work is mostly a deadening necessity that we bear through, with the hope that we'll have some energy left over at the end of the day to give to our families and friends. Fighting the boss takes tremendous energy and courage and commitment, and it is an added pressure on already-stressed workers, especially workers who have dependents.The "go along to get along" attitude is a necessary coping skill for a lot of people, and building the kind of trusting relationship with my co-workers that will hopefully inspire all of us to resist and fight takes recognizing when we need a break from the intensity. This isn't about letting each other off the hook but about recognizing the moments when "lightening up" a bit is a strategic way to support each other and build trusting relationships.

By the way, I don't mean to imply that you aren't building trusting relationships, etc - not at all! I'm just adding a couple of observations from my own experience about the way fear, exhaustion, courage, and solidarity play out at work. I am interested in this because as someone who is very familiar with the world of "professional union organizing," I find that there's a lot of subtlety in the day-to-day struggle that no amount of organizer trainings can prepare us for.

Liberté Locke
Dec 29 2011 11:10

Greetings, sister Huli,

Thank you for your thoughts. You're absolutely right. I think a lot can be said regarding picking your battles. Early on, 4 years ago when I started this particular organizing, I picked a fight over everything. I wanted complete liberation in an environment where liberation was a foreign word. It's pushed many coworkers away because I'd be moved by issues that didn't move other people. I feel I have learn to wait for issues that will mobilize others & to save smaller issues as something I can bond over with people but not necessarily wage a full-scale war over. Recognizing strategic choices better had drastically improved my relationships with coworkers. As for "professional union organizing" I have no experience with that. Within the IWW we do not used the paid staffer model that other unions utilize. We absolutely have trainings, I've been one of the trainers for a couple years, but we don't have a lot of similarities with that way of workplace organizing. I have been learning more about that world, garnering skills I'd like to bring to the IWW but it's pretty to do this work where the workers on the shop floor have complete control of the direction of the campaign without them union setting the pace, making the final calls. I really respect people ding workplace organizing when it comes from a solid place if mobilizing your rank-n-file coworkers - which sounds exactly like what you're doingbecause I can sense the heart that you put into work. Always good to meet another sister in the fight.

Dec 29 2011 14:41

I feel like I need to clarify something. I am familiar with a certain style of organizing from my work as a union staffer, so my comment was meant to contrast that style with what I've learned through direct experience. I am also familiar with the IWW model, which is much more in line with my sensibilities (I think the IWW trainings are terrific!) I realized on reading back that it might sound like I was suggesting that you are involved in that "professional" model, which you clearly are not.

Just shifting gears a little, though: can you share your experience with developing the trust on the shop floor that you all will back each other up in a fight? Right now in my small workplace there is a desire to organize but also a certain amount of mutual distrust that if the shit hits the fan, some will side with management. (We've seen two co-workers fired in the past year so there is some fear.)

Joseph Kay
Feb 9 2012 14:08

I've been meaning to come back to this, but got distracted...

Liberté Locke wrote:
When did “being the bigger person” mean just accepting being treated like shit?

In my experience, this has come as much if not more from co-workers than from management. Suffering in silence is often held up as the sort of stoic ideal we should all conform to. Now obviously management help foster that attitude, but in my experience it's been perpetuated by peer pressure. In hindsight, i'm more aware of some of the organising tools which can be used to start turning that around, but i think it is one of the major barriers to people taking action in their own interests.

I used to work in a pharmacy doing data entry, and there were 4 of us (including the team leader/manager) in a tiny back office. Conditions were shit, it was hot, overcrowded, and I had to work Saturdays with a day off in the week in lieu, which i was rarely allowed to take. Then when it got busy i had to come in early and leave late, so i was doing 10 hour days. i was the 'office junior' so i got the worst of it (i covered Saturdays on my own; was sent out on errands like buying the boss a sandwich etc), but everyone else had more or less the same problems with unmanageable workloads etc. But whenever I spoke to anyone about it it was basically a badge of pride to put up with it (this attitude went far deeper than work; one woman had married a guy she met when he attacked her and her daughter, she wrote to him in prison and they married, and she was terrified of him). A real Stockholm syndrome.

In that particular workplace, it was a small business and a real personal fiefdom of the owner-manager, so they definitely encouraged that kind of attitude. But mainly it was direct peer-pressure from my co-workers that enforced it. I suspect that might be one of the differences between large corporate outfits like Starbucks and smaller owner-managed firms. In the first case there's a more impersonal relationship which they counter with all the management courses on 'the Starbucks environment' etc, all the stock phrases they use and so on. In the smaller owner-managed firms managers aren't really trained but rely on instinctive/informal methods of control and manipulation, often it will be a family business with the head of the family employing relatives as managers and so on. When i've worked in larger multinationals, i've generally found the peer-pressure to tolerate shit less stifling, but it's compensated for by managerial bullshit, formal team briefs, faux-openness to feedback which serves only to fob you off that they 'care' and so on. So i guess that might be why 'being the bigger person' might come more from management in more corporate workplaces?

That's a bit rambling, i haven't really thought through all the differences, but in my experience the same kind of shit happens in small and large businesses, but the management styles are usually quite different.