A short of account of a low-level direct action - a collective refusal to undertake a certain aspect of work - that occurred at a small language school.
Like every child of the Reagan era, my teachers taught me how to steer clear of drugs: “Just Say No”.
Having spent all my working life in an economy largely defined by Reagan's neoliberal restructuring, I've come to appreciate the power of “Just Say No” - although perhaps not in the way old Ronnie intended.
In my previous job I worked at a private language school in Turkey. It was a small center, with only 10 workers in total.
Even from a capitalist perspective, management was a joke. Such flagrant mismanagement led to significant understaffing at two of the three branches across the city.
To compensate, management asked teachers from our branch to travel the other side of the city for cover. One-way public transport could take anywhere up to two hours. On top of this, at least three of our female workmates had experienced sexual harassment on the way home from work already. Needless to say, we weren't exactly thrilled at the idea.
So us three “native” teachers came together and formed a pact: we'd ask for cab fare to be covered. If management refused, we would, in turn, refuse to go. We shared our plan with other trusted co-workers and they offered their support.
Approximately a week before our cover shifts were to begin, we calmly went to our boss's office and explained our expectations. Predictably, our immediate manager ‘understood and sympathized’, but the decision was just simply out of her hands. She did agree to contact senior management and, so, we waited. And waited and waited…
I was first in line to travel to the other branch. An hour before I was scheduled to leave, the higher-ups finally responded: cab fare would not be provided.
After some quick convening to ensure everyone was still solid, I calmly and confidently declined to go. This sent our supervisor into a tail-spin. Phone calls were made. Emails were sent.
Management responded with a threat: such refusal could lead to a cancellation of my contract. After explaining that I thought such a move could create much larger difficulties for my employer, another round of frantic emails and phone calls took place.
This time, the answer was different: cab fare would be provided for anyone travelling across town.
News of our resistance spread to other branches. The idea that even just a few workers standing together could force the company to back down led to cross-branch conversations that weren't happening before.
On the flip side, our action very much put us on the radar of senior management. But that wasn’t particularly anything new and prior to the action, we’d had conversations about that eventuality anyway.
Our small action, I should note, didn’t come out of nowhere. Low morale and grievances were a constant feature of the workplace.
There’d been months of small conversations in the run up to our Just Say No. These were almost never explicitly about organising – more just offering a caring ear and offering support to co-workers when they were bullied or mistreated by management.
One result of these small discussions was a concerted attempt to stick together during our monthly staff meetings. We’d decide what issues we wanted to raise, how we’d raise them, and who would say what. Without an adequate response, we’d raise the same issues at subsequent meetings.
Additionally, I was lucky enough to work with someone who was dedicated to workplace organisation. As teachers, we’d built up enough solidarity where we consciously worked to increase break times and generally covered for each other when it came to dealing with management.
Despite the success of our Just Say No, this was basically the high point of our workplace activity. But in a workplace with a high-turnover and a generally young workforce, Just Say No proved a powerful piece of direct action.
Just Say No has some distinct advantages for those of us who work in casualised and/or traditionally non-organised industries. For one, it lends itself well to moral grievances. Similarly, it’s a good tactic for those early defensive fights around legal or contractual issue.
Most importantly, however, Just Say No is an easy first step for co-workers to take. All you need is a dedicated minority to put it into action and, since it’s done collectively and directly, it demonstrates quite clearly the power we have when we stick together.