Dispatch from the Picket Line

Seattle Worker JUNE-JULY 2018-page004-005

The union drive at Grassroots Campaigns Incorporated (GCI) has been nothing short of profound. Throughout months of organizing we built an unparalleled culture of resistance and solidarity and a tangible sense that we don’t need bosses to get work done.

At the beginning of May we realized that something was off. May and June are typically the biggest hiring periods with the office frequently swelling to 40 or 50 canvassers by
midsummer. This year, though, the interim directors sent by corporate were simply not bringing in new people.

Thanks to shop floor agitation and legal threats, we were able to force the company to begin hiring by the end of May, but we soon found ourselves with a new problem. New hires were being made Field Managers (FMs) on their fourth or fifth days. FMs are similar to shift leads at other jobs but with extra paperwork, no real power, and often no increase in pay. When new workers should have been learning the skills needed to canvass, they were instead being asked to supervise other people.

These new hires felt like they were being pressured to quit by being given such responsibilities so quickly. They joined the union to do something about it. We sympathized with their issue and decided to March on the Boss on Friday, June 8 to demand that new hires get at least two weeks on the job before being asked to take on FM responsibilities. We reasonably expected the current director would accede to our
demand on the spot, but, because of the company’s consistent and blatant lawbreaking practices, we wanted to have the agreement in writing, which was something the
company was incredibly averse to.

Ten of us, including all of the recent new hires, entered the director’s office shortly before our morning circle. We delivered our demand and, as expected, she agreed verbally. She stated that she would get us something in writing by the end of the day but that she needed to talk to Laurie Owen (the company’s General Counsel and chief union buster) to find out exactly what she was allowed to write. She agreed that one of our members could stay a bit late while she waited for approval.

Most of the office went out to canvass, and the hours ticked by. By noon it was starting to become clear that Laurie wouldn’t give us anything. The director was told to write
nothing down, although she was assured she had discretion over the policy to ensure all new hires have at least two weeks on the job before taking on FM responsibilities. At lunchtime, one union member pointed out that because we had received a promise to have something in writing by the end of the day, the day couldn’t be over until we had it. We all agreed and decided that if we didn’t have something by the time we returned from canvassing we would remain on the clock discussing workplace conditions with our manager until she gave us what she had promised.

After the afternoon debriefs, seven people found themselves in the director’s office. For the next four and a half hours, there was continuous discussion about workplace conditions with the manager interspersed with songs and teach­-ins. We were told repeatedly that no one would have to leave or be forced to clock out. At 9:45pm, we finally received a written notice from the manager that she could not commit policy to writing. Having forced a response that would greatly aid in future legal matters, we left feeling elated at the power of direct action.

In IU650, the 9th of the month has become something of a harbinger of major events. On March 9, we voted 15­-2 in an NLRB election for federal recognition of our existing union. On April 9, our contract was signed. On May 9, we held a March on the Boss regarding holiday pay that coincided with the New Orleans office filing for an NLRB election. June 9, the day after our sit­in, proved equally momentous as it turned out to be the first day of our lockout.

We had been preparing for a lockout for the better part of a month. While its immediate arrival was somewhat of a surprise, we were more than prepared to meet it head on. The very first day we received calls from corporate stating that the Seattle office was suspended, but we showed we were more than capable of working even without an open
office. This act struck existential fear into management, who now knew we could do our jobs without them. We also had a solid legal case against them, thanks to their admission that the lockout was retaliation for the June 8 action.

Typical companies might obscure retaliatory actions behind a thin smoke screen. GCI, though, has been so blatant and consistent with its lawbreaking that even the NLRB can’t help but find sympathy with our arguments.

We continued rolling out a campaign of direct action and workplace self-­organization. On June 14th, we launched a phone zap against the corporate office with the aim of getting hundreds, if not thousands, to call GCI’s headquarters and demand they end the lockout. Coinciding with this, we began running our own autonomous canvass in the streets of Seattle designed to build support for the union and get people to join in on the phone zap. This powerful collective action gave us a profound sense of what it means to work for ourselves on our own terms and in control of our own labor.

Picketing started that same day. On Thursday and Friday we held spirited informational pickets outside our locked office in Fremont. We drew attention around the neighborhood and the community. Our numbers swelled from 30 attendees the first day to over 50 on the second. Simultaneously, we received solidarity from around the country with pickets at GCI offices in Denver, Raleigh-Durham, Philadelphia, and at the HQ in Boston. Taking to the streets was both a means of catharsis and community building and, when placed in a national context, had the potential to put serious pressure on GCI’s business.

We continued to organize over the next few days. We fleshed out our plans for a direct action escalation campaign. Fortunately, those plans became unnecessary on
Wednesday, June 20, when almost everyone in the office received a new set of phone calls from corporate: the office would reopen on Thursday. The lockout was over. We had
won.

There have been several past attempts to build unions at GCI, two of them with the IWW. In both of the most recent efforts, the company closed the office in order to stifle the
effort. The threat of closure and loss of jobs has proven to be a powerful deterrent to organizing for years. That threat is now over.

The fact that direct action forced the company to reopen our office will serve as tremendous inspiration as we continue to build our union here in Seattle and nationally. In the months ahead, our campaign will surely escalate. New hires will join the union and hear tales of the picket line. Workers at more offices will hopefully join the fight and open up new fronts. The battle to get our contract recognized still looms large. Through it all, we will remember what we learned in this struggle. To quote a song which kept us going in our sit-in and on the picket line, “They have the plant, but we have the power!”

[This article was originally published in the June-July 2018 Seattle Worker. You can read the full issue here.]

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