Real-Life Organizing on Film: A review of Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You”

Reviewed by Kay

Sorry to Bother You is one of the year’s most entertaining films. Rolling Stone says, “Welcome to the WTF satire of the summer.” It’s got comedy, suspense, social relevance, Afro-surrealism, sci-fi, mayhem, and plenty of surprises. It’s also one of the best films I’ve seen that shows how workplace organizing really works.

Most people think you can change the world by standing up and giving a brilliant, passionate speech that inspires folks. Why? That’s what you see in most films and on TV. In real life, workplace organizing follows the important fundamentals of AEIOU: Agitate, Educate, Inoculate, Organize, and Unionize. That’s too much to explain in a short review (the IWW Organizer Training 101 is the best place to go to learn that) but Agitate doesn’t mean lecturing coworkers on what’s wrong at their workplace — it’s all about asking everyone one-on-one what their issues are and listening closely to their concerns and needs.

In Sorry to Bother You, the organizer, Squeeze, approaches the main character, a telemarketer named Cash, soon after he starts and sets up a one-on-one meeting away from work to listen to his workplace issues. Spot on. Also true to successful organizing campaigns: when they do an action, they start with a smaller action, a 20 minute “phones down.” They plan logistics and roles beforehand and make sure that everyone is on board and knows what they are doing. There is even some inoculation when Squeeze tells the workers what union-busting strategies the boss might throw at them. He neglects to mention that the bosses might tempt Cash into scabbing by giving him a promotion. This turns into one of the most hilarious and suspenseful plot points.

My complaint here is that there was only one organizer, and he decided strategy single-handedly rather than asking for a vote from the workers. The IWW motto of “everyone’s an organizer” means that we work together to educate each other so that we can decide strategy democratically, and so that everyone has a voice and a vote.

Did the on-the-job organizing succeed, as it did in Nine to Five or Good Girls Revolt — or fail — or go somewhere sideways? Well, you’ll just have to see the film. You’ll be glad you did.

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