Hello,internet, it’s been a while. The following is the text of a letter I wrote a couple of months back to persuade some of my coworkers here in Rochester to support our store’s unionization drive. I offer it up here for anybody else out there working your Heineken off at some crappy job for low pay, for everyone like me who dreams of a better world and a real democracy.
Brothers and Sister, This Job Stinks:
An Open Letter to my Coworkers, Regarding our Union Organizing Drive
Brothers and sisters, this job stinks. Sometimes literally, like when I’m rolling out a fresh cart of somebody’s old kids’ clothes that reek of whiz from ten feet off, when I try to sing along to David Bowie or whatever on the Muzak, try to smile through it all, but I can’t fight the awareness that I’m putzing around in an invisible cloud of whatever ammonia scented particulate might infest a dirty old pile of boys activewear pants. This job stinks metaphorically, too, but I don’t need to tell any of you guys that. I see you every day, the strain and fatigue written on your face as you drag yourself off the bus line and into another long day of quotas, dust, daily lectures, low pay and general disrespect. I’ve been working here long enough that I’ve seen most of you in tears, at one time or another, over how you’ve been treated. If I haven’t seen you cry, then I’ve probably seen you shaking with rage, the way you’ve all seen me before, when my happy-go-lucky act wears thin and I go off like a roman candle of cuss words. I done seen it all. I’ve seen you on the job, limping like a zombie, sweat and mucus dripping from your face, when you’ve been too sick to work but couldn’t stay home because the boss said you need a doctor’s note, and you couldn’t afford to go to the doctor just to have him tell you what you already know: that you were too damn sick to work. I’ve seen people who have been with this store since it opened fired for the flimsiest reasons, or maybe for no reason at all, just so the boss could send us a message. The message was simple: “You ain’t shit, homeboy, and you better do just what we say, or we’ll find some other desperate American willing to come in here and fritter away her life for a wage a few pennies higher than what Congress has determined is criminal.” If for no other reason than the fact that they don’t pay us enough to live on, and we all end up working two or three jobs to get by, this job stinks, out loud, 24/7, even when the store is closed.
It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why we’re organizing a union.
The Bosses say this is a bad idea. They even sacrificed a full hour of their precious productivity, an hour that they would have fired any one of us for wasting for any reason, to drag us all into the break room and show us a video about what a rotten idea the union is. They say we don’t know what we’re getting into, that we’ll be sorry. But isn’t that always their story, that they know better than us, that we’ll be happier if we just follow the rules and leave all of the decisions that affect our lives, our pay, our benefits, our working conditions, our childcare, our healthcare, our break times, our days off, to them? When we know that they make every one of those decisions, from how many employees they have at a given store to how many pieces of merchandise we’re expected to process in a day, on the basis of maximum profitability. When will the company finally be profitable enough that they can start sharing the wealth with all of us who put in the work and make that profit possible? Will it be when they have a store in every small town in the US of A and none of us are working there anymore? Maybe when Macklemore finally puts us in a video and gets the white hipster crowd spending their student loan checks here? Try never. It will always be more profitable for them to give us less, so you can rest assured that they will never give us a dime that we don’t stand up and fight for.
You all know me. I stay on the grind, rolling that product, all day long, I guzzle coffee with too much sugar, sit around reading the socialist newspaper and stuff like that. I have no reason to lie to my coworkers, because we all work the same job for about the same pay. The company has a simple and obvious reason to lie to us; they don’t want to pay us more.
The truth about the union drive is that we will never have to accept a contract that we haven’t all voted on and agreed to. The truth is that none of us will ever pay a penny in union dues until we’ve negotiated a contract that not only gives us more pay and better benefits, but also protects our jobs and gives us real power over what goes on and how we’re treated, day in and day out, in our own workplace. Because while for us this might all boil down to what we bring home on our paychecks every two weeks, for the Bosses this all boils down to power. They like the current state of affairs, where they listen to our complaints once or twice a year and then tell us how it’s going to be. They like the system where they keep us hustling, promising us raises and bonuses that never seem to materialize, regardless of how hard we work, and there is exactly doodley squat we can say about it. They’ll take time out of our day to show us lying videos, they’ll hire lawyers and bring in the corporate drones to eyeball us all like sheep, just to keep the union out, because they don’t want to deal with us on our own terms. They want to grant us the privilege of begging for crumbs, and they know that when we’re organized we’ll have the power to demand a seat at the dinner table. Because the union isn’t some gang of organizers off in Buffalo living off dues money. Those are the people who work for the union. The union is us, all of us, doing our jobs every day and standing together. When they say they want to keep the union out, what they really mean is that they want to keep us powerless, working for nothing, scared to death that we’re not going to have a job tomorrow.
The one simple fact that the company tries to cover up with their intimidation tactics, their half-truths and outright lies, is that we only stand to gain in this struggle. In the worst case scenario, if we win the right to organize and we’re never able to negotiate an acceptable contract, then the union goes away, we never pay a dime, and we end up in the same place we’re in right now. On the other hand, if we stand together in this struggle, the more cards we sign, the more workers we have united, fighting for our union, the more power we have at the negotiating table. Raises, vacations, childcare; when we come together in solidarity the only limits to what we might achieve are our love for each other, and our courage to stand and fight.
What we stand to gain in this struggle is more than just higher pay and a better job. It’s human dignity. It’s an opportunity to make America a better place for all of us who don’t have family money to fall back on and private school connections. This is our chance to be a part of a movement to make life better for all us refugees whom the last thirty years of trickle-down economics has left barely scraping by, moving from one underpaid job to the next, always hoping for something better. This is how we make it better, with our struggle, our union, our lives. This is where “Power to the people” stops being a catchy slogan and becomes something with concrete power to transform the lives of ourselves and the people we love. In this fight, we have the occasion to stand together on the side of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr., to let this nation reverberate with the echoes of, “Si, se puede,” and, “I am a man,” and to unite against the George Bushes, the Hitlers, and the Rush Limbaughs of the world who want to tell us, whatever their rationale, that we’re not good enough, that we don’t deserve decent pay for honest work.
So that’s my bit. I’ll see you all out on the floor, in production, in the break room. You might notice that I’m not scowling the way I used to, not muttering curses and shoving product around on the racks like I’m trying to kill it. That was the way I acted back when I had no power, when I was withering away at a meaningless, minimum wage job that insulted my humanity every second of the day. Since the union drive started up a couple weeks ago, I no longer feel that way. Now, every time I go into work, I know that I’m building something that matters. I’m doing something that will make life better for me and for all the other people who I see every day, putting in work. These days, nothing the management says or does can faze me. When the boss comes up, singing that tire old refrain, “You ain’t shit, homeboy, you better do what we say,” I don’t get mad. I get moving. And I hope you all join me, because the only thing it takes to win is for us all to care enough to stand together.