Just say no

Just say no

A short of account of a low-level direct action - a collective refusal to undertake a certain aspect of work - that occurred at a small language school.

Like every child of the Reagan era, my teachers taught me how to steer clear of drugs: “Just Say No”.

Having spent all my working life in an economy largely defined by Reagan's neoliberal restructuring, I've come to appreciate the power of “Just Say No” - although perhaps not in the way old Ronnie intended.

In my previous job I worked at a private language school in Turkey. It was a small center, with only 10 workers in total.

Even from a capitalist perspective, management was a joke. Such flagrant mismanagement led to significant understaffing at two of the three branches across the city.

To compensate, management asked teachers from our branch to travel the other side of the city for cover. One-way public transport could take anywhere up to two hours. On top of this, at least three of our female workmates had experienced sexual harassment on the way home from work already. Needless to say, we weren't exactly thrilled at the idea.

So us three “native” teachers came together and formed a pact: we'd ask for cab fare to be covered. If management refused, we would, in turn, refuse to go. We shared our plan with other trusted co-workers and they offered their support.

Approximately a week before our cover shifts were to begin, we calmly went to our boss's office and explained our expectations. Predictably, our immediate manager ‘understood and sympathized’, but the decision was just simply out of her hands. She did agree to contact senior management and, so, we waited. And waited and waited…

I was first in line to travel to the other branch. An hour before I was scheduled to leave, the higher-ups finally responded: cab fare would not be provided.

After some quick convening to ensure everyone was still solid, I calmly and confidently declined to go. This sent our supervisor into a tail-spin. Phone calls were made. Emails were sent.

Management responded with a threat: such refusal could lead to a cancellation of my contract. After explaining that I thought such a move could create much larger difficulties for my employer, another round of frantic emails and phone calls took place.

This time, the answer was different: cab fare would be provided for anyone travelling across town.

News of our resistance spread to other branches. The idea that even just a few workers standing together could force the company to back down led to cross-branch conversations that weren't happening before.

On the flip side, our action very much put us on the radar of senior management. But that wasn’t particularly anything new and prior to the action, we’d had conversations about that eventuality anyway.

Our small action, I should note, didn’t come out of nowhere. Low morale and grievances were a constant feature of the workplace.

There’d been months of small conversations in the run up to our Just Say No. These were almost never explicitly about organising – more just offering a caring ear and offering support to co-workers when they were bullied or mistreated by management.

One result of these small discussions was a concerted attempt to stick together during our monthly staff meetings. We’d decide what issues we wanted to raise, how we’d raise them, and who would say what. Without an adequate response, we’d raise the same issues at subsequent meetings.

Additionally, I was lucky enough to work with someone who was dedicated to workplace organisation. As teachers, we’d built up enough solidarity where we consciously worked to increase break times and generally covered for each other when it came to dealing with management.

Despite the success of our Just Say No, this was basically the high point of our workplace activity. But in a workplace with a high-turnover and a generally young workforce, Just Say No proved a powerful piece of direct action.

Just Say No has some distinct advantages for those of us who work in casualised and/or traditionally non-organised industries. For one, it lends itself well to moral grievances. Similarly, it’s a good tactic for those early defensive fights around legal or contractual issue.

Most importantly, however, Just Say No is an easy first step for co-workers to take. All you need is a dedicated minority to put it into action and, since it’s done collectively and directly, it demonstrates quite clearly the power we have when we stick together.

Posted By

Chilli Sauce
Feb 27 2014 14:52

Share


  • We came together and formed a pact: we'd ask for cab fare to be covered. If management refused, we would, in turn, refuse to go.

Attached files

Comments

A Wotsit
Feb 27 2014 15:09

nice one chilli, thanks for writing this up

plasmatelly
Feb 27 2014 19:05

Like it!

boozemonarchy
Feb 28 2014 01:14
Quote:
Most importantly, however, Just Say No is an easy first step for co-workers to take. All you need is a dedicated minority to put it into action and, since it’s done collectively and directly, it demonstrates quite clearly the power we have when we stick together.

Best bit, my emphasis added. Thanks for sharing this stuff Chilli. Additionally, this is my favorite aspect of libcom, meat and potatoes stuff. Sorry vegans. eek

I think its crucial to move forward with actions with a dedicated minority. Too often, traditional models and labor law push these possibilities out of the picture and lack of tangible examples has largely removed their possibilities from the imaginations of workers. Love that putting this into practice sparked discussions that weren't happening before.
Solid.

vicent
Feb 28 2014 02:26

I know this isn't meant to be the message you're sending, but is TEFL good fun?

Chilli Sauce
Feb 28 2014 11:14

Thanks everyone!

Yeah Boze, I agree on basically all your points. The accounts and the practical stuff is definitely the best of libcom. Similarly, it's basically the Workers Power column that keeps me reading the IW.

On the dedicated minority, yeah, realistically, that's about the best situation we can hope to be starting from in most of our workplaces. So we should build our strategy off the back off that.

Also, the bit about the imagination is important. I used to run a lot of organiser trainings for SolFed (it's basically the adapted OT 101) and that, combined with my own attempts at organising, you realise how much of low-level direct actions are formed and developed based on the particulars of a given workplace. And you don't necessarily even see where those 'pinch points' are until you're actually involved in trying to find ways to pressure management.

Vicent, um, yes and no, I guess. I've done some writing before about my impressions of the industry generally. In terms of the practicalities of the work, it seems to be becoming an increasingly casualized industry (especially in Europe and in the few remaining public sector TESOL-type jobs). But, you do get to travel and I've met some absolutely awesome people - I mean, shit, I ended up in Turkey in one of the epicentres of the protests in June. I know other people who were teaching in Barcelona during the general strikes in Spain.

In any case, I've had a rough idea and even some preliminary discussions of trying to form some of international TEFL workers network. Nothing's come of it yet, but assuming I stay in the industry, it's something I would like to see happen.

Steven.
Mar 2 2014 16:04

Hey, just to echo what other people have said this was really good!

In a way, it's also pretty lucky that the bosses asked you first. I have been in similar situations, where we have all agreed to refuse something but then a manager picks on one individual and tells them to do it and they cave, because ultimately despite it being a collective agreement all of the responsibility gets put on one person. This is why work to rules can be so difficult to implement in many workplaces.

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if they had picked on somebody else. I guess it's good in this instance management didn't have a good idea of the mood of individual workers. Which perhaps is another potential advantage for workers in casualised areas, where managers just don't actually know their employees so well, and so don't have an understanding of who the militants may be. Whereas when you have been somewhere for years, the managers know everyone pretty well, and definitely know who the troublemakers are!

Chilli Sauce
Mar 2 2014 16:40

Thanks Steven. And that is a very good point.

It was actually a pretty interesting workplace situation - I was debating describing it in more detail, but I think there's a real value in keeping accounts like this short and readable. But for those who are interested...

So, out of the 10 people who worked there, 4 were self-described anarchists. Two of them were not particularly class struggle types, but they weren't going to take sh-t from management and they'd been deeply involved in the protests in June, alongside another one of our workmates. Now, of the other two anarchists, it was myself and one of the other two teachers. Anarchist teacher #2 is a libcom poster.

As for the third teacher, the conditions were so crap at the job and the general attitude towards management was so bad that by the time this issue cropped up, she was as pissed off and belligerent as the anarchists when it came to dealing with management. I think if she had been first up to go, she might have needed a bit of reassurance, but - and I left this out as well - nearly everyone there was ready to quit and we'd organised basically a de facto walkout/quitting en masse by a majority of the centre's staff if anyone got sacked for refusing to go.*

As an aside, with this same third teacher, we had another issue at work where we organised the students to pressure management and she told us "I'm beginning to see what you mean by this workplace organising thing!"

The other factor in all this is that our immediate manager was truly one of the stupidest people I've ever met and lacked any sense of tactical management. So, in that sense, we were lucky. She desperately tried to keep everyone - us and senior management - happy. Which meant that she was caught in the middle, getting it from both sides, and lacked the wherewithal to know when and when not to pick a fight with us. We had all figured this out pretty early on and used it to our advantage.

*When the protests were at their peak in June, we'd also had a majority of our workmates ready for a walkout if the "general strike" had spread beyond the unions. Unfortunately, it never did.

Steven.
Mar 2 2014 16:51

Cool, thanks for the additional info, it's interesting by yes I think it's good you kept the original article nice and short. That said, it looks like you are talking about a school in Turkey, it might be worth mentioning the country in the article somewhere do you think? Or were you trying to keep it more anonymous?

Noah Fence
Mar 2 2014 17:33
Quote:
As for the third teacher, the conditions were so crap at the job and the general attitude towards management was so bad that by the time this issue cropped up, she was as pissed off and belligerent as the anarchists when it came to dealing with management. I think if she had been first up to go, she might have needed a bit of reassurance, but - and I left this out as well - nearly everyone there was ready to quit and we'd organised basically a de facto walkout/quitting en masse by a majority of the centre's staff if anyone got sacked for refusing to go.

This is very tasty.

Khawaga
Mar 2 2014 17:35

Great post Chili!