Alex Erikson talks about a new manager who came into his workplace with the intent of breaking worker solidarity through small, winnable issues.
If you read stuff about the labor movement of the 1970s and 80s, there is a lot of talkabout the “bosses’ offensive,” an aggressive attack on workers movements by capital.
A friend of mine from Italy told me that in 1977, the bosses and pro-boss workers (we call these people ’scissorbills,’ because their words cut you) staged a march of several thousand people in opposition to the continued wildcat strikes, sabotage, and occasional kneecapping, kidnapping, or assassination of bosses in the plants of northern Italy. This action was sufficient to change the climate and turn the cultural tide against the workers’ insurgency.
In my own workplace, we have seen an ebb and flow of class struggle on a micro-level. Initially, when the union went public, the boss was so afraid of us that he would sneak in and out the back door of the store without us knowing. We actually had a hard time planning actions because we could never find the boss to make demands.
The company replaced our boss with a new, more authoritarian manager. She set about breaking the union. Many of our fellow workers quit of their own volition before the union-busting really started, so we were already weak when the boss went on the offensive against us.
How did our new boss attack us? The same way we attacked our boss. She picked a winnable issue- something that we cared about but that we would be unable to defend. An issue that would isolate us from our coworkers, where we would not have “common sense” or the moral high ground behind us. In this case, it was the day-old sandwiches. We used to keep the sandwiches we didn’t sell at the end of the night for the workers who would come in the next day to have for lunch. Since we’re all so damn poor, this small gesture of solidarity meant a lot- it saved us money, and sometimes meant we got to eat when we would otherwise miss a meal.
The boss took away our sandwiches and put a note in the back room instructing us that we were no longer allowed to keep the sandwiches.
We were outraged. She was taking food out of our mouths. Immediately, two workers confronted the boss and demanded we be able to keep the sandwiches, explaining how important it was to us, how we didn’t make enough money to buy lunch every day, and how upset all the other workers would be.
The boss had prepared an answer in advance. She said it was against health code to keep the sandwiches, and that her boss would not allow it. We went back and forth a bunch of times to no avail.
The next day, I packaged up the sandwiches and put them in a stapled-shut bag, labeling it for a coworker who worked the next morning. He got the sandwiches and shared them with others on his shift. This was a direct action, directly contradicting the boss’ wishes.
I got called in the back room the next day. I was informed that if I did this again, I would be written up. Two writeups and I would be fired.
What could we do? We could do another march on the boss. A strike? A picket? A phone-in? We couldn’t figure out how to escalate. Our coworkers were not comfortable openly disobeying the boss, especially with the supposed legitimacy of “health code” behind her.
Our boss won. We lost the sandwiches. We did not have the organization we needed to defend ourselves.
This was the first defensive battle of a long retreat. Once you lose once, the effect can be devastating. People lose confidence in their ability to win and your organization crumbles. The boss gets increasingly brazen in their attacks.
But their brazenness generates agitation. You might have to bide your time, but eventually, the time will be ripe for a counterattack. It’s important to understand this dynamic in order to be able to beat back the bosses’ offensive, but also to be able to take the occasional loss in stride, pick our battles, and stay on the offensive more effectively.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (May 2010)