A short blog detailing and analysing a low-level direct action in which I participated in the recent past.
“It was like a chorus of complaints! As soon as one of us stopped talking someone else jumped in. Man, she didn't know what to do!” So went the excited words of one of my workmates that Friday afternoon. We all felt it, too. We were giddy and laughing, and why shouldn't we have been? We'd done it. For once, we were the ones in control. That day, the end-of-week department meeting had belonged to us. For one half an hour it'd clearly been us versus them and we'd stuck together. And it felt good.
The set-up was simple: A number of us had written a grievance letter. We all knew the issues, they'd been simmering for months. We'd had meetings after work—sometimes through the union and sometimes not—so there was a sense of trust amongst us already. From there, it was simply a matter of some on-the-fly social mapping and selecting which of the original authors would ask for each particular co-worker's signature. In the end, a majority of the department signed. Not just the full-timers and union members either, but part-timers and agency staff, too.
Then we plotted: who would raise each grievance, what they'd say, how we'd deal with our manager's likely responses, how we'd back each other, and who'd turn in the signed letter.
On the day, things came together just as planned. Each participant knew what to say and said it with confidence. The grievances were articulate and well argued, leaving our line manager reeling and struggling to respond. After we said our collective piece, the letter was delivered. We'd picked a long-time worker to do this, someone who management didn't see as a trouble maker and who was also widely respected by workers in our department.
It wasn't a totally unqualified success. Although a majority of our department spoke in one voice, our manager did succeed in co-opting our anger to a degree. We were informed that “our concerns” were already being raised in “every line management meeting”. Longer serving members of staff undoubtedly understood the hollowness of these words. Some of the newer employees, however, didn't have that experience.
On the surface, it only took a week of organising to pull off our coup. In fact, this was the culmination of a year and a half long series of smaller actions, some of which succeeded and others which didn't.
Resentment had simmered in the department long before I was hired. But it was only through a conscious campaign of one-on-one conversations that this resentment morphed from individual frustration into anything approaching a collective consciousness. What made the one-on-ones successful, I think, is that they were always about real issues; real problems we face at work. I rarely discuss politics with my co-workers (and, in fact, never use terms like “direct action” or “march on the boss”), so I try to make sure my politics come through in my actions. The one-on-ones always focused on simple ideas about strength and safety in numbers. From there a series of actions sprouted: group meetings, smaller actions, formal grievances, and collective letters to management.
Through all this a sort of collective common sense developed. It's reached the point where “we have to do it collectively” is the standard response from a decent number of my immediate workmates when an issue or grievance crops up.
This dynamic could be seen in our “Staff Meeting March on the Boss”. In fact, things got particularly interesting after we turned in our demand letter. Emboldened by the general atmosphere, a workmate—one who who hadn't signed the letter—brought up an unrelated grievance. From there, the floodgates opened. At one point, one of my workmates even stated that “Management don't appreciate how much we do around here, if we didn't come in one Monday morning, this place wouldn't run...”
The upshot of our “chorus of complaints” was not only a meeting with senior management, but a shared and palpable sense of power within the department. As I write this, however, there is no promise that our demands will be won. But with a majority of our department speaking up and challenging management's assumed control of “their” meeting, more confrontational direct actions seem much less like pipe dreams. After all, if we can stick together in a staff meeting, the idea that we can act together seems that much more achievable.