Preventable mistakes - Juan Conatz

An account by Juan Conatz of a failed attempt to respond to a firing at work.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 2, 2014

A lot of the knowledge and skills we pass down in the IWW are the basics, the initial steps, the first things you do. We try to institutionalize this stuff so members learn and then build off them. Rather than leaving people to themselves, making it necessary to reinvent the wheel every time, we promote member education through programs like the Organizer Trainings 101 and 102. The idea is that once you become familiar with what needs to be done, you’ll do those things automatically. And as you get better, you can assess how you’ve done or whether the steps and skills handed down need to be altered or improved in some way. But even those of us who know better make mistakes.

Like FW db said in his article “Toward A Union Of Organizers,” there are certain things that are good to do regardless of whether or not a Wobbly plans to organize at their workplace. Maybe organizing isn’t in your plans now, but those plans could change. Plus, sometimes situations arise and you need to react. Just such a situation happened to me recently, where simple mistakes and lack of preparation hurt my efforts.

At a warehouse on the south side of Minneapolis, I was employed at a small company that specialized in buying overstock and customer return loads from large online retailers. For a good part of the day, we would break down the pallets from these loads and sort through the items. While sorting one of these loads, a co-worker made a joke about taking a PlayStation 2 home with him in front of the warehouse supervisor. Such jokes were common, even by the supervisor, but this time it was different.

The next day, the owner of the company was in the building, and there were rumors that there were items missing from the load. This was actually pretty common. The packing lists rarely matched what actually came off the truck. Sometimes there were things missing, sometimes there was extra. This was known by everyone, including the owner.

Regardless of this fact, my co-worker who had cracked the joke was fired within the hour. Three years working at this company and he was out the door because of an offhand remark. Pissed off, two other co-workers and I confronted the warehouse supervisor about this. We quickly picked up that personal reasons between him and the fired co-worker were the root of all this. All eight of us on the floor were mad and very little work was getting done. A few hours later, the owner called a meeting, where he tried to explain why he fired the guy and why we should understand it. This ended with the two co-workers and I getting into a shouting match with him.

Tempers were flaring and you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. This was now a “hot shop.” I never planned on organizing there, but that was now irrelevant. We had to try and get this guy’s job back and to establish some meager concerted activity protection for the two others and I who stood up. I tried to push that anger toward a conversation later, rather than loud complaining that would eventually dissipate and collapse into hopelessness. After texting the fired coworker, we agreed to talk on the phone after work. With another co-worker I set up a one-on-one meeting for the next day, so we could talk about our options and so I could get contact info for everyone.

There was a preventable mistake with the planned one-on-one though: no firm date and time. As we got off work and entered the New Year’s Eve break, no one would get back to me. The timing was off, but my failure to do a simple thing like agree to a specific date and time led it to not being a priority on a busy holiday. If I had better prepared by sticking to what I’ve been taught and know how to do it, things may have turned out differently.

In the end, a few of us ended up quitting and finding other jobs, a Band-aid solution that solves nothing but transferring our misery to another low-wage job.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (October 2014)