Workers in Limbo – Union Building

In my last post, I discussed –just a little bit and not in much detail– how being without a contract creates something of a liminal experience. It creates an unsettled region that is confusing and dangerous yet full of potentials. The biggest potential in this moment may be related to its gravest danger: This is a time when our relationship, as workers, to our union can be profoundly altered.

Management, of course, would very much like to alter this relationship. Indeed, they’d prefer there to be no relationship and no union. The very best outcome for them would be to break the union or render it obsolete. It’s easy to see why they would prefer this outcome. Unorganized labor is easier to manipulate and exploit. The profits of the shareholders rely upon this exploitation. The interests of these shareholders are divorced from those of the workers. I would even go so far as to say that these interests are also totally divorced from the interests of the shoppers. There’s an old sort of right-wing canard that is supposed to point at socialist inefficiency: In the Soviet Union grocery stores were run for the workers not the customers. I have no idea how true that may or may not be. I have never been a Soviet grocery store. But I have been in American ones, spent a great deal of time in them as a matter of fact, and, in my experience, the capitalist system produces a similar inefficiency. One might say that, in America, grocery stores are run for the shareholders and not for the customers. The lines are long, not because the store is busy, but because we do not have enough cashiers. Much of our workforce, underpaid and working two or three jobs just to try to make ends meet, is exhausted. Under-staffing, lack of training, and tired workers hurt the customer. But, as much as this makes the shopping experience a lot more miserable than it needs to be, cutting back on labor quickly increases shareholder value. The customers and the workers both pay for that increase.

What management would like is a disposable, desperate, and untrained workforce that they could easily push around. If management could, they would like the store to have no workers at all and for all that labor to be outsourced to the customer. Find your own food, ring up your own order, and bag your own groceries. Not only will you be doing someone’s job, you will be paying to do it. And the money saved through these practices? They won’t translate into lower prices for the shopper. They’ll just become profit that winds up in a few millionaires’ and billionaires’ pockets. A substantial amount of securitization will accompany those practices. Entry and exit from the grocery store to would become more like a TSA checkpoint. In those conditions, you’re more likely to have your bag searched than to have a worker help you pack it. But that’s probably a subject for another post.

That is one possibility for a changed relationship to the union. It’s a bad one. And it’s one that is almost made inevitable if other changes do not occur. If the relationship between workers and the union remains as it is, this pro-management scenario becomes likely. The status-quo favors it.

Now, I’m pro-union. This is not to say that I am blind to some of the corruption and malfeasance that occurs in them. I also have a certain distrust of any organization that gets too big. Yet, there are no forms of organization that are more capable of representing the workers and asserting their rights. Unions are not perfect. But they are the best damn tool that we have. They work.

Yet, the relationship between workers and our union is, right now, a troubled one. As things currently stand –in my store at least– there is a certain cynicism towards the union. I’m not even sure that cynicism is the right word. It’s more a feeling of separation and disappointment. Generally, the union is viewed as being a separate body from the workers. There’s us, the rank and file, bagging groceries, moving boxes, serving customers, and there’s the union, in their offices, negotiating on our behalf but not having to live with the consequences of their compromises. The union can call things “victories” and these things do not feel like victories. They feel like erosion. Every contract seems a little worse than the last one. Every new wage a little less livable. The older workers on the older contracts are very clearly better taken care of than the new hires. For many of us, the union feels like something we go to when we have a problem. It does not feel like something that we are a part of. There’s an “us and them” at work here. And, in that separation, some cynicism grows. It’s understandable. God knows, I’ve felt that way myself. When one is working for minimum wage, they have a goddamn right to wonder why they’re paying union dues. What is the union doing?

That, right now, is the status quo. It’s a situation that management can easily exploit. A union cannot survive this separation between itself and the people it represents. It is called a union for a reason.

This moment provides us with a chance to change that relationship. It’s necessary for us to view the union as us. Not as a separate institution but as us. This, however, requires more that change in perspective. One cannot leave a situation unchanged and just ask people to change how they view it. The technical term for that is “some bullshit” and that is some bullshit. The situation itself has to be changed. And it can be. It just takes a few practical steps.

The first is that the union has to be more present. The reps have to show up and talk to the workers. The stewards have to be present and active. They are the tissue that connects the union to the workers. They have to introduce themselves to new workers, take the time to explain the union and the rights that a worker has, and they have stick up for the employees when management ignores those rights. Any steward who is incapable of doing even that much needs to go. They’re bad for the union and they’re bad for the workers. We can’t afford that sort of laziness. We never could.

Presence is important but so is action. These don’t need to be big actions. Anything that brings the workers together in a common goal is good. These can be just little things. At the last meeting, we were given sheets to have the workers put their names on – a simple declaration of values. Even something as small as that helps to bring the workers together. There are also times when we should claim spaces in the store for ourselves. Times when we should put up union posters where the public can see them and do it as a collective. Today, we take the deli. Tomorrow, produce. These are small actions but they assert some ownership over these spaces. And these are our spaces.

We have to make that more than a belief. It has to become a habit and a reality.

Will management like it? Probably not. But a little friction can make a spark and sparks can grow into fires. Actions make a union real. They cannot grow without them.

Some of these actions need to come from the rank and file. In time, most of them do. But to get to there from here, we need the professionals. We need to know that the union has our back and that they will show up. We need their help in organizing actions. You can’t expect a courtesy clerk, who doesn’t have the time to talk to other employees and has never met the steward or have any idea who that is or maybe even what a steward is — a worker who has just had their hours cut below what the contract allows– to feel they have the job security, union backing, or the power to organize a delegation to management. They deal with management every day. They see the union when? And when cashier hours are cut, we need a union strong enough to stop work until those hours are restored. The union needs to show that this and more is possible. They have to stretch the definition of what is possible. What’s possible cannot be management’s decision. It’s ours. And we can only prove what’s possible with action.

The union has to be a present living experience. They have to act and show people how to act. We need one not afraid to make demands and to demand the impossible. That’s the union we need. It’s the union that we have to build. It’s not going to be easy. But given the alternatives, I don’t see that we have much choice. If we don’t embrace the impossible, we’re doomed to accept the inevitable.

But, in the meantime, before we get to full anarcho-syndicalism at the grocery store, the best thing you can do for us is to go to the website that UFCW 770 has set up. It’s called Food Fight. There is a petition. Signing it helps. Every signature we get improves our negotiating position. Hopefully, it will bring the bosses to the table and help us get a good contract and avoid a strike. You can find the site here and, if facebook is more your bag, you can follow along here. This site explains some of what we’re fighting for. So, please go, sign the petition, try to get some other people to sign, and help us out. At the end of the day, this is your fight too.

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