“I Live for That Shit”: A worker recalls successful direct action in the workplace

James Nestlé relates examples from his experience of taking action on the job. This article was first published by Organizing Work.

Submitted by R Totale on June 1, 2021

Marianne Garneau’s point in her article “Big Strikes and the Sabotage of the Labor Movement” regarding the lionization of the “general strike” by leftist characters is very well taken by a lefty construction worker such as myself (Local 1 IUEC, International Union of Elevator Constructors). I have often found myself cringing at certain leftists’ suggestions of sweeping general strike proclamations. I usually ask myself: “who is this person even talking to?” Putting aside the fact that I don’t know any fellow workers who can name one leftist figure in the media, I don’t know one worker who actually wants to go on strike! I do, however, know workers who want better conditions at the jobs they currently have.

All of my friends happen to be part of the working class. This is how I get most of my local labor news, since outside of large strikes, smaller labor actions don’t usually make it to mainstream press. Garneau points out that there is hardly any shop floor action taking place within labor these days — certainly not like there were in labor’s heyday. Although there are some public sectors that have had to adopt direct actions outside of strikes because they’ve long since had striking rights stolen from their basket of tactics.

NYC MTA (ATU local 100) workers resort to using the strict safety policies within their contracts to slow down public transport services. Slowdown actions for the MTA workers include bus drivers finding malfunctions on their bus right before they’re scheduled to pull out of the depot which then have to be fixed immediately by the depot’s mechanics. Likewise, NYC sanitation workers are currently utilizing their slowdown tactics of staying on a route the full eight hours of a shift without completing all of the day’s tasks — which leaves extra work for the next shift to pick up, causing a chain reaction of backed up tasks to be completed — in order to fight back against the implementation of black boxes in their trucks. These black boxes will mine data on the work habits of the san-men, and the fear is that city management will use this data to change the job as they know it. We have all heard how data mining has affected Amazon workers’ working conditions, and NYCDS certainly doesn’t want their members peeing in bottles in order to work more efficiently.

When I asked a sanitation worker how the slowdown was going, he responded that “Teamsters Local 831 always wins,” before an immediate backtracking in which he acknowledged that they usually have to give something up in order to win something they fight for. What wasn’t mistakable, though, was his quick enthusiasm when talking about fighting for rights using direct action.

Direct action in the restaurant industry

Nothing is scarier, more exciting, more exhilarating and more empowering than coming together with some of your co-workers in order to defy management’s orders. I live for that shit! In fact, the hairs were standing on my arm while reading Garneau’s piece. Before my construction years, I worked in the food industry — an industry rife with inequity. There were times I, alongside other workers, had to take direct action in order to survive a shift with my sanity intact.

One such occasion took place on Easter. Anybody who has worked in restaurants knows holidays are the busiest, most profitable and chaotic days to be at work. As workers, we have a front-row seat to families enjoying their holidays together, reminding us how we are personally missing out on our own families’ festivities. Considering the sacrifices we make to be of service to others, a double-shift on Easter should never have been a day where my compatriots on the kitchen line and I had to take action to protect ourselves from unjust working conditions.

The restaurant had 1200 covers on the books, which is to say 1200 people reserved seats to dine with us over the course of twelve hours. I was set to be the kitchen expeditor that whole day — basically I was the person who would keep the kitchen coordinated with the wait/host staff. I warned the owner, who was also the general manager, that we would not be able to take walk-ins and that whoever was seating the tables should stagger seating in order to give the kitchen time to prepare between seatings.

Greed got the better of our GM and he was seating people at a rapid pace, along with taking walk-in customers. I saw how the influx of orders had started to drown the kitchen staff; we couldn’t keep up. We tried our best, but I could see the physical exhaustion plus frustration starting to build in my crew. I went out to speak with the GM again, but he basically told me to pick myself up by my boot straps. This didn’t sit well with me, and so I knew I had to get the GM’s attention in another way.

I went back to the kitchen where my crew had started to point their anger at me. This was warranted since I was supposed to be the guy maintaining control between the front-of-house and the back-of-house, and I was failing my crew miserably. I couldn’t take the pressure and constant barrage of order tickets whirring through our POS [point-of-sale] printer.

I decided that was enough and I yelled in the kitchen: “NO MORE ORDERS!” I knew a server, having heard I was stopping orders, would go tell the GM. I explained to my kitchen brigade that the GM would probably be running through the swing doors of our kitchen any minute, but I didn’t care. I half-jokingly said something like, “what are ya gonna do, that’s life.” That’s when the grill cook looked at me in all seriousness and said: “I think it’s time for a kitchen fifteen.” He meant that we should all take a fifteen-minute break, and we all knew what walking out together would do to the restaurant; we’d have complete control for that short period. With the grill cook’s blessing (he was the OG of the kitchen) the whole line walked out the back door to sit down while orders kept piling in. I’ll never forget the feeling of freedom I felt walking out that back door.

We won that holiday. I’m not saying we stopped all the injustices of working in the service industry, but we stood up for our own well-being, and that matters! The owner did rush through that door and found his kitchen empty. At this moment the kitchen wasn’t even his, it belonged to us. He profusely apologized after we explained what we were enduring and promised the rest of the day would get better. He even offered to take us all out for drinks afterwards. We knew the owner was only doing this out of desperation for us to return, but that didn’t matter. That day went way smoother after our action, but I am sure, even more important than winning a better shift experience, nobody will ever forget the time we took our destinies into our own hands.

Direct action in the construction industry

My most recent workplace action took place a few months ago at a job site in White Plains. The GC (general contractor) and his company decided that they were going to start testing us for COVID twice weekly after the hoist operator didn’t show up for work — which turned out to be due to death from COVID-19. We had no problem with the testing itself, but the problem came when the GC started asking for our insurance cards. The company wanted to shift their financial responsibility to the workers and explained that it was just temporary and we would be reimbursed, blah, blah, blah. We had a discussion amongst the 6 of us (IUEC – elevator constructors), and saw that IBEW (electricians) and the pipefitters were also huddled. Naturally, we walked over to them and started discussing our options: do we give in or walk off? IBEW decided not to work, and obviously we agreed. We walked right up to the GC office, asked him to come outside and told him to take a hike (the electricians literally said “f*ck off”).

Since IUEC and IBEW are such strong unions and also integral to the operation of half-finished buildings, we easily won what we were fighting for. It is important to note that not all of the trades felt secure in their ability to stand up to the GC for fear of losing their ability to feed their families. On the one hand I felt great and empowered that we stood up to the penny-pinching developers who couldn’t care less about the humanity of workers, but on the other hand I felt bad that other trades on the same site as us didn’t feel safe enough to speak up for themselves. The question of whether I could have maybe spoken to a few of those fearful workers and changed their collective perspectives still enters my thoughts. The GC asked us not to tell the other trades that they caved to our demands, but obviously we told anybody who asked how we wouldn’t give our insurance cards for something the developer should be paying for.

Collective memories of worker empowerment

What this type of power coursing through our veins does is empower us for the next time. If you’re like me, you start to search out wrongs that need to be righted; you start to fight for your rights, and implore all the people close to you to do the same. Outside of seeing what your own hands have created, there is nothing more rewarding for me on a job site than exerting what little power I have. The dictatorial economic system we live under sucks away power from the working class, and so when we do gain some, even for a short time, it is hard to forget.

I believe it is for this reason that labor education is so paltry or non-existent in capitalist countries. Collective memories of worker empowerment and taking actions that push back against the employer class directly could spread like wildfire. When I learn about actions, past and present, by workers against their employers, it registers with me that I, too, can take action. After all, I identify with workers everywhere. There is certainly an identity crisis within the working class of capitalist countries. For too long we have been fed the histories of CEOs and wealthy “innovators” without the stories of workers whose backs these CEOs stand on to get to where they are. There are too many workers who hold out this dream of rising above their class without acknowledging that this would mean stepping over the over-worked bodies of their friends and family. Taking action can have the effect of erasing this notion, but taking action while also learning of other actions taking place can have the effect of pervading our class conscience as a whole.

I recently read about the Woolworth women sitting-in in Chicago, and how they mixed fun with their collective power. In the book Three Strikes, Dana Frank details how these women strikers formed an “Entertainment Committee” for various “impromptu performances” and even arranged for the musicians’ union to put on nightly performances that kept strikers’ spirits high while in the pressure-cooker-like atmosphere fighting for worker rights created. I can’t see anything being more powerful than that: having fun while exerting control over your own destiny. I have fun telling the boss no, and each time I do it my skin gets thicker – similar to the callouses on my hands that remind me of which class I am a part of.