Wage Theft Picket

An account of a campaign to win a worker's back wages through pickets and the threat of escalation.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 4, 2011

One day I told a friend of mine about an action the General Membership Branch did where we got someone a few shifts' worth of wages after he got fired quickly from a new job. We called for a picket. It didn't actually happen. The boss caved as soon as the first two guys showed up with a stack of signs. Then another former employee who had left town, and had been trying to wrestle her last two weeks pay from the boss caught word of it. She talked to the boss and said something to the effect of, “Heard there was a picket, shame if there was another one.” She had tried for months to get her money, after the picket she got it right away.

My buddy said, “Hey I know someone in a similar situation.” He passed on our IWW contact details. His friend had worked at a club for a few weeks. She was fired because the boss couldn't afford all of the staff he had. She had already contacted the employer to ask for her back wages. No matter happen, no matter how many phone calls she made, she was stonewalled by her ex-boss.

She joined the union and asked for help. Her ex-boss is emotionally manipulative and unstable. She wanted us to go for her initially. I volunteered with another Wobbly to meet with her ex-boss. I was initially reluctant to be a representative because I'd never done it before. But the thing needed doing so I put on a suit. We went to the business. We hung around waiting for the boss to come and open up. He was unwilling to talk to us. The other fellow worker gave the boss his cell phone number. We told him we are going to have a picket but he can phone us if he'd like to reconsider. We left and a little while latter the boss phoned us. He wanted to meet. He said he would call but later with a meeting time. He didn't.

We learned from this action not to do everything for the worker. In planning the next steps we made sure she was involved... we aren't a service union after all. We tried to help out with the stuff that she couldn't do. This way we did a better job of helping the worker be the organizer. Still, it's hard to teach what you're just learning. Neither of us who were being representatives have much experience in this stuff.

A picket was called for 9:30 p.m. one night. The worker invited a bunch of her friends. I sent out a facebook invite. A bunch of People's Global Action folks were having a meeting around the corner. They came by after that was done. When I got there, there were about 10 folks. I'd say there was a total of maybe 35 people coming and going, with about 20 at any one time. It was a solid picket.

The guy I was working with made up a little leaflet briefly stating that the business doesn't pay it's staff and people shouldn't patronize the club/restaurant. The headline was “FREE DRINKS.” The text explained that if workers aren't getting paid the owner shouldn't be charging. Most folks got the joke but one woman apparently went in, ordered a drink and presented the flyer, thinking it was a coupon. She came out angry about that, screaming and swearing. I felt bad that someone had to get upset but outside of that the leaflet worked well. The boss called the cops saying we were starting fights with customers. They left quickly when they saw what was going on.

At first the employer wouldn't meet with us to talk unless we told the picket to leave first. We said no. Eventually he came out to talk. In addition to us three who were involved in negotiating, one of the bigger, burlier members of the branch was also present. There was a feeling amongst the wobs that we needed some sort of physically imposing presence “in case of trouble”. As he had no experience with the boss he said something that made the guy upset and he left. I personally didn't feel at all like I was going to be physically threatened in this situation and as the picket wore on and we had subsequent conversations with the owner, I became more firm about not needing anyone other than the three of us who were involved around. It was too difficult to deal with strategy-wise, and bringing machismo into things seems like a bad move in general.

As time went on and his nightclub stayed empty he began to come out looking increasingly concerned. He wanted to talk again. This time just the three of us went upstairs with him. We were obviously hurting him, as the club was almost empty.

We won half the wages owed in cash and a written statement promising to pay the remainder next Saturday. If he didn't pay there would be another picket. We were promised by the head of the District Labour Council that they would support us on this matter (unprecedented in my knowledge). We are using the possibility of an even bigger picket, with media this time, as a guarantee.

This may not directly lead to any organized shops, but actions like this are helpful to folks, including ourselves. We gain valuable skills we can use when there are bigger fish to fry. Taking actions like this builds real solidarity. We can point to these actions when someone asks, “What does the IWW do?”

Originally appeared in the April 2008 Industrial Worker