To bridge the divide or burn our bridges?

To bridge the divide or burn our bridges?

A "reprint" of a Workers Power column that first appeared in the July/August 2014 Industrial Worker.

I’ve been involved in a number of workplace disputes over the past couple of years. Despite those disputes happening at different workplaces – some union and some not - and even on different continents, they all had one thing in common. In each instance the workforce broke down into two camps: those who supported the dispute and those who supported management.

That’s the thing about workplace disputes: they force people to take a side. Old, underlying tensions between co-workers are brought to the surface. Friends encounter each other in staff meetings where one is defending management and the other is maintaining a stony oppositional silence. Sometimes they even meet on opposite sides of a picket line.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this divide is probably an inevitable part of workplace organising. As such, it is something we should be taking seriously when stirring up trouble at work.

I’m not totally unsympathetic to those who take management’s side. Everywhere I’ve worked, there has generally been a pretty young workforce with little experience of open, organised conflict at work. In situations of tension, it’s often easier to side with existing structures of power and authority – especially when doing otherwise brings you into conflict with the people who sign your paychecks.

In my experience, it’s generally the conscious organisers who seek to avoid alienating these co-workers. We hope that if they witness a victory now, it will bring them on board in the future.

Despite this, I’ve often had advice from pissed-off workers to write off certain individuals as untrustworthy snitches and sycophants. And they’ve been right.

I don’t know which is the correct position to take. I’d like to think that people change through struggle. Even if they’re on the wrong side of a dispute, simply seeing others stick together and fight back can change perspectives. That said, I have, at times, shared information with some of these less trustworthy folks that has come back to bite me.

Another point worth reiterating is that it’s often a mistake to assume politicos are somehow inherently trustworthy or supportive of struggle. I had one workmate who liked Chomsky and Zizek and who often spoke about the economic and social perils of inequality. However, when this individual had the opportunity to directly challenge that imbalance, they were one of management’s strongest supporters. Others, who were far less overtly political, came down on the side of us workers.

I’m not sure there can be any hard and fast advice here. I do think it’s worth remembering that good organising is a long, slow process of preparing our co-workers to take action. Prepping our co-workers for what to expect is arguably the most important step in that process.

Perhaps just as important, however, is building up social connections with our co-workers. In all the years I’ve been attempting to organise at work, it’s been in those workplaces where I talked the least about workplace organising where I’ve had the most success. What makes a good organiser is not talking about organising, but being the person your co-workers know as both knowledgeable and trustworthy.

All that said, sometimes the fight comes to us. In those instances, the pro- and anti- dispute divide will probably be the strongest. It will involve making judgement calls and preparing workmates for how both management and co-workers might respond to a campaign or public action.

Having a solid plan about what level of information will be shared with certain individuals is a good place to start. Getting advice from trusted, longer-serving workmates about who’s trustworthy and who’s not is a good idea, too.

If we choose to believe that people change through struggle, it’s worth remembering that we never want this action to be our final action. Start small, start trusted. After all, chances are that even as a small group of organised workers, we have more power than we think if we’re smart and strategic in using it.

As for that divide, it will be easier to bridge if we’ve already demonstrated the protection we have when we stick together.

Posted By

Chilli Sauce
Jul 3 2014 23:17

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  • I’ve come to the conclusion that this divide is probably an inevitable part of workplace organising. As such, it is something we should be taking seriously when stirring up trouble at work.

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Comments

Spikymike
Jul 4 2014 12:53

Some common sense in this text which fits with my past experience as a long standing employee in the public services but not so relevant in a growing situation of less stable, precarious, part-time, short term contract, zero hours employement etc. Also choice of photo illustration seemed relevant but only as a contrast to the more common past experience of 'the mass worker' and the different context of workers being 'locked-out'.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 4 2014 14:38
Quote:
not so relevant in a growing situation of less stable, precarious, part-time, short term contract, zero hours employement etc.

Really? Cause that's where most of my experience has been. Although, as touched upon, even when I worked in a more stable (although increasingly casualized) public sector position, it was still a similar situation.

Yeah, the pic, workers on a bridge. I really wasn't looking much more deeply into it than that.

Fnordie
Jul 4 2014 22:28

I thought the conventional wisdom, including in the IWW, was always "extend a hand," never burn bridges. Sometimes it takes people a long time to come around. That doesn't mean showing your hand to snitches and scabs, just being ready to welcome and not hate them once they see the light. I don't think I've met any worker who had boss-head so bad that they wouldn't get agitated when the company inevitably fucks them over.

Spikymike
Jul 5 2014 11:25

Chilli,

Ok some of the points made in the text might be more broadly applicable in any workplace situation but I thought others rather depended on building up longer term relationships which in turn seemed to need a more stable working environment - maybe I'm misinterpreting something.

I suppose I should qualify my sloppy reference to the 'mass worker' as I realise that even in Europe in the logistics sector there are still some physicall concentrations of workers in the same geographical areas but not necessarily with one big employer and still subject to the other factors associated with precarity which make building up long term relationships more difficult without some radically different approaches.

Steven.
Jul 7 2014 19:21

Yeah, an interesting topic. I've been in my job a fair few years so work with people every day who have scabbed on our strikes - although those who've done so aggressively have never become long-term employees for whatever reason (which could explain why they didn't bother striking, they just wanted to get a better job somewhere else).

I think you can't burn bridges with people, you have to keep trying and hope that one day they "see the light", or at least go from being active supporters of management to passive ones, or ones who at least see the value in what you're doing, even if they won't play any part in it themselves

kevin s.
Jul 16 2014 17:27

Hey Chilli, interesting post... I gotta agree with you there's no hard and fast rule for this topic.

Like a lot of organizing problems, a lot comes down to good intuition/instincts, personality reading, and good investigative powers (like, asking the right questions, attentiveness to surroundings and how people respond to workplace situations) and finally, just simply how well you know people in and outside of work. I've worked a lot of crappy jobs, some for longer periods and others only briefly, and find usually in my experience it takes awhile to build outside-of-work relationships but, pretty quickly you can form at-work relationships. I've also had personal friends and friendly coworkers who I wouldn't trust in a labor dispute.

You learn from experience to "smell" different personality types... and inversely to take your time in sussing people out, because even if you're right 9 times out of 10, the one time you're wrong can make a difference.

Also frankly, in any conflict you make alliances that may be based solely on mutual necessity, and navigating that is an organizing skill in itself. That might seem messy but I've witnessed the weaknesses of social group/friendship-driven organizing practices.

Case in point-

Quote:
That’s the thing about workplace disputes: they force people to take a side. Old, underlying tensions between co-workers are brought to the surface. Friends encounter each other in staff meetings where one is defending management and the other is maintaining a stony oppositional silence. Sometimes they even meet on opposite sides of a picket line.

People can be surprising (for good or bad). Some individuals you may not have liked much before can turn out to be solid class warriors, and others you got along well with can turn out cowardly or self-serving. And like you said, politicos aren't always trustworthy... if anything they're often capable of justifying scab behavior through intellectual gymnastics that the average person wouldn't think of. Where a typical scab might just say they need that paycheck now, can't afford to lose the job etc., a left-wing scab will give you a lecture about recognizing your privileges and maybe throw some sophisticated leftist anti-union critiques that most folks aren't even aware of. (Believe me I've dealt with the above in direct personal experience.)

Bottom Line is you learn a lot about people when the chips fall and they are forced to pick a side. Which is a hazardous but valuable experience and one of the good things about the "open" (as opposed to underground) phase of organizing.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 16 2014 17:58

Great post. Thanks for the feedback Kevin.