Lunch Lady Land: Reflections on a Unionization Drive from a Radical Food Service Worker
The following piece is a repost of Fnordie’s recent piece that was published in WSA’s Ideas and Action section . He provides an excellent anecdote of organizing in a college cafeteria where he build solid connections with coworkers and eventually helps create successful actions. It goes in-dept on his experience and keeps the reader wanting more. It a great organizing narrative that everyone should definitely read.
It was sometime in late February, 2011 when we let the cat out of the bag. I was working the swing shift in the college’s main cafeteria – “The Den” as it was known. It was starting to get dark, and I had just clocked out for my lunchbreak and stepped outside onto the smoking dock. No sooner had I sat down on an overturned milkcrate, when my friend and co-worker Emilio came charging around the corner, panting, wide-eyed and grimacing.
“Mallory’s telling everybody, fool!” he hissed at me through clenched teeth.
Like me, Emilio was a cook (though we sometimes joked our job description was “lunch lady”). We were also both on a union organizing committee for our kitchen. We’d been organizing “underground” for months, building the committee in secret. We weren’t yet ready to go public.
I spasmed a double-take. “Are you fucking with me?”
“Nah, fool, she in there all like ‘AARON wants to start a UNION!’” he wailed in his best old woman impression. “The fuck you tell her?”
“Nothing, dude!” I sputtered defensively. “I just asked if I could meet her after work to talk about something important, I didn’t tell her what it was!”
“Shit. Shit. Shit,” he mused, chewing his lip. He settled onto a milkcrate next to me and fell silent for a moment. “Okay, here’s what you’re gonna do,” he said finally. “You get your ass back in there right now, and you tell her you gay.”
“What? I’m not -” I started, but then I got it. “That’s brilliant. Yeah, OK.”
Minutes later, I found Mallory and pulled her aside. I explained, in as sincere a tone as I could muster, that I couldn’t stand living a lie any longer, that I desperately wanted to come out of the closet but just didn’t know how, and that I’d asked to meet in private because I sought her sage wisdom for advice on how to embrace my sexuality. Mallory is a devout born-again Christian. I wouldn’t necessarily say she went “into shock” per se, but all the blood certainly drained out of her face.
I left very pleased with myself. The secrecy of our insurgent labor conspiracy is secure, I thought. By any means necessary.
Three weeks later, all pretext of paranoid confidentiality was violently stripped away. The organizers called it The Blitz. The students – our customers – went away for spring break, and everyone but a tiny skeleton crew was laid off. We were all there at that night’s committee meeting. There were 20 of us then – eleven from the Den; five from Tchotchke’s, the other dining hall; two cashiers from the company-run convenience store; a server from the campus diner; and a cook from their late-night pizza outfit. Emilio, his older brother Charlie, and Cesar the pizza cook were already close friends of mine. Looking around the crowded room, we realized all but one of the company’s departments was represented. A staff organizer began listing names in marker on a big sheet of paper on the wall – mapping out who each of us knew, or rather who was in our “structure,” as they called it. There were almost 160 workers in total. After months (or for some of us, a year) of painstakingly recruiting only the most trustworthy social leaders, now we’d recruit everyone else, all at once. Each committee member was responsible for visiting the people in their structure, spreading the good news of the union drive, and organizing them to sign a petition for an election. My list had six names on it; all folks I knew pretty well, with whom I bantered and ate – and from whom I’d been hiding our clandestine organization for the six months I’d been on the committee. I had eight days to recruit them before spring break ended. “After that,” a smiling organizer assured me, “the workers and the company will be at war.”
There was one organizer, Eddie, who I got to know pretty well as an accomplice to house visits. One day, when I was asking about tactics we might use to punch back after the company’s reaction, he quoted Mao Zedong to me: “The liberal revolutionary is preoccupied with combat. The true revolutionary is preoccupied with organization.” I have no idea if Mao ever actually said this; I’ve looked and I can’t find it. Still, for anyone waging the class struggle, I think the principle bears remembering: tactics are fleeting – they’re only ever as strong as their underlying organization. It’s more a war of position than a war of maneuver. As I began to learn in the weeks to come, direct action on the job is fundamentally about power.
I took my first stab at building the organization later that morning in a busy westside McDonald’s. I had arranged to meet my co-worker Chaquon there. She wasn’t comfortable meeting at her house; I think she got weirded out and suspicious when I asked to meet her privately for a reason I couldn’t tell her. Chaquon worked next to me every day – mostly grilling chicken, cutting massive quantities of vegetables, and doing other prep for a chopped salad station. Then, during the lunch rush, we’d mix salads to order in a three-person assembly line. Our customer base was a very health-conscious student body, so naturally we were the busiest station in the cafeteria. Our manager often reminded us, in a manner much like that of a kindergarten teacher addressing errant children, that we were a “high-volume unit” and therefore must keep our line moving as fast as humanly possible. Sometimes we’d serve upwards of 1,000 kids in a single rush. Every day we’d pull on gloves, look down, and finally look up four hours later. It was exhausting and mind-numbing. On top of that, the dishwasher had been broken for five weeks – so we were tasked with the impossible feat of keeping the line moving while also washing out our own mixing bowls by hand after each order. And I had never once heard Chaquon complain.
I’d already heard plenty of horror stories about other people’s first visits. I was prepared for the worst. From the sound of it, house visits were trials by fire. People slammed doors in your face; they cussed you out; they kicked you out of their houses; they freaked out and pulled knives on you. Being asked to organize and fight your employer is scary, and fear makes people do all kinds of things. Chaquon had a conservative disposition and a proper, almost saintly demeanor, and at work she seemed to identify with the company. She virtually oozed team spirit. Sitting and waiting for her in the McDonald’s with Eddie, I was nervous about how someone like her might react.
People have a way of surprising you. Chaquon arrived, I introduced her to Eddie, and I told her we were forming a union. She was interested, and not hostile, but at first she replied with a noncommittal “oh, really?” I tried to guide the conversation through steps-of-organizing they’d taught us in committee meetings. The first, of course, is agitation – and according to the union, the key to that was simply sharing stories. “You know the dishwasher’s been broken for more than a month now?” I started. “I asked Chef Ferdinand when they’d fix it – you know what he said? He was like ‘we don’t have the budget for that right now.’”
I didn’t get to step two. That was all it took. For the next half hour, Chaquon launched into an impassioned rant about how every day brings a new humiliation, how we’re treated like animals, how to the company we’re nothing but pieces of equipment made of meat. It blew me away. This was poetry. I’d worked with this woman for a year, and I’d never seen her so much as roll her eyes at the chef. Suddenly, her fury at the company was animating an impromptu call to arms. We got some weird glances from other customers, and she didn’t care in the least. It was as if by giving her permission to vent about our exploitation, we’d opened a floodgate that might never close again. Significantly, our actual working conditions and the broken dishwasher were secondary concerns to her – far more important was the lack of dignity and respect these things represented. She signed the petition and proudly took a union button on the spot, and she remained a staunch union partisan for the duration of the year-long conflict that was to come.
I think that’s what I miss most about being in the midst of an organizing drive. More than the thrill of sticking it to the boss; more than the frantic catharsis of attacks and counterattacks; more, even, than the deepening of bonds that turns friends into comrades – it’s the stuff you hear people say. Melodramatic stuff. Hollywood stuff. Declarations that under any other circumstance might be ridiculously corny, but when spoken with absolute conviction are anything but. Organizing is a transformative experience. It forces people to take sides, and consequently shows you who they really are. “This fight is forever,” Emilio told me after we won recognition. “The minute you stop fighting is the minute you lose.”
By the end of the blitz, we had collected signatures for more than 80 of our co-workers, in addition to our 20. I encountered a lot of different reactions in visits that week. Chaquon’s instant fervor was the most positive. The other five ranged from guarded curiosity to frightened confusion to panicked hostility. The procedure was the same for everyone: listen closely; share stories; ask pointed questions; agitate people around their issues; “inoculate” them, or prepare them for retaliation (“I won’t lie to you, the company might fire us. But they might fire us anyway.“) Anyone who’s been to an IWW Organizing 101 training will note the parallels with AEIOU. The last step was always the “push”: issuing a specific personal challenge, daring someone to be brave enough to do something for the campaign. Eddie would often tell me “Organizing is the art of bringing out the best in people.”
Eventually, I got five signatures: one from each person, with the exception of the last one. The last one was a crotchety older cook – let’s call him “Archie Bunker” – who’d taken me under his wing since my first day. We were both transplants from east coast rustbelt cities, and we’d bonded over football and feeling out of place in this fake-ass west coast Babylon. One time, after a night of heavy drinking at a cook-out in his backyard, my mother called me. Realizing I was talking to my mom, Archie Bunker grabbed my phone away from me and bellowed, “I’m gonna look after your boy. I promise. I got his back.”
It had been difficult to keep the campaign secret from him – not only were we close friends, but he was as agitated as they come. There were constant problems with his paychecks, either arriving late or coming up short. He agreed with me that the company was a bunch of shady motherfuckers, and payroll probably committed wage theft on purpose. He’d been working there for going on 10 years and scarcely made more than when he started. He hated all the chefs and practically every other manager. I was sure he’d be a shoe-in. Of everybody I knew in that kitchen, he was the one I was most eager to recruit. So when I confidently walked into his dining room, handed him a petition, and glibly said “Archie, we’re forming a union. We’re gonna fix that place. You down?” – I was in for a disappointment.
“What the fuck?!” he roared in my face. His wife started to say something conciliatory from behind him, but he cut her off with a snarl. “Man, I thought you were better than that! Get the fuck out of my house!” I did just that, more than a little shaken. He followed me onto his porch. There was a vein bulging in his forehead. “What put that shit in your head, man?”
“I don’t know, Archie. Mostly stuff you told me,” I lied. That just threw fuel on the fire. He made a fist and pulled his arm back like he was going to throw a punch. I flinched. He didn’t swing. He was still fuming, obviously, but he looked me in the eye and spoke very softly.
“I promised your mama I was gonna look after you,” he muttered. And then, confusingly, “I care about me, my wife, and my daughter. Get out of here and keep that racist shit away from me.”
For this man to object to something because it was racist was, to say the least, rich. That was the one thing that had always made me uncomfortable about him. Sometimes he was so ridiculous it was almost funny – he’d once commented, philosophically, “Fidencio’s a good dude. But they oughta ship him back to Mexico.” Months later, he finally told me he’d worked in an auto-plant in his youth, and, because he was black, the UAW had refused to protect him. The experience had turned him against the labor movement for 40 years. I’m still not sure, but I think he called a manager and blew our cover that same night. People have a way of surprising you.
The world is a messy place. You can never take anyone’s support for granted, no matter how strong a relationship you have with them. There are no shortcuts; no substitutes for the careful, maddeningly slow process of organizing. Rank-and-file militants ignore this truism at their peril.
Two days after we went back to work, we marched on the boss. It would be the first of seven such confrontational actions. The organizers euphemistically called it a “delegation,” but having spent my teen years in various anarchist organizations, I knew the traditional name. Months later, we did some polite, conversational delegations to management – but when we went public, we clapped and chanted and didn’t let the bastards talk back.
We had a committee meeting the night before to prepare. They showed us footage of other food service workers going public, some who worked for our employer in different shops. A few of the videos were of restrained delegations that ended in dialogue with a manager, but others showed workers chanting and doing “Si Se Puede” claps (the in-unison slow clap that originated in the farmworker struggles of the UFW). Some people were more apprehensive than others. In general the older folks were more hesitant, but that wasn’t true across the board – one otherwise gentle baker in his 60′s was especially itching for a fight. I thought he might have been radical politically, but his English and my Spanish were bad enough that our conversations never got that complex. To conclude the meeting, we did a sort of dress rehearsal. We each prepared a personal grievance we would tell Cruella, the general manager, and we decided the order we would speak in. The only fully scripted part belonged to Charlie – at the end, he would say “We are asking for a neutrality agreement to allow us to organize without retaliation. You have 36 hours to give us an answer.” An organizer played the GM, and we crowded into her office and ran through the motions several times. After some discussion, we agreed ours would be an aggressive delegation – if the boss tried to interrupt us, we would chant to drown her out.
The big day also happened to be St Patrick’s Day. I remember being vaguely put off that our glorious moment would have to take place against the backdrop of paper shamrocks and plastic green hats that littered the college, but now I like to think my Irish trade unionist ancestors would have approved. The plan was to clock out at 3:30pm, meet at the campus chapel, and march to Cruella’s office from there. We would be accompanied by a priest, a rabbi, and a student-labor solidarity group (no, that’s not the set up line for a joke). These outside allies were a crucial element of our strategy: we needed them to pressure the administration of the school, which could then pressure our employer, its subcontractor. An organizer and some of the committee had been meeting with a member of the student group for a couple months. The clergy were from a city-wide solidarity group. As far as I could tell, its sole purpose was to lend out religious figures to unions to give their campaigns an air of moral authority. I scoffed at the idea at the time. In retrospect, I think it worked like a charm. The company had recently had its contracts cancelled at other universities after another union tarnished its image. The threat of bad publicity was the best leverage we had.
It was 3:20pm. The lunch rush was over and I was covering my line with plastic wrap. My gaze darted back and forth across the cafeteria, scrutinizing the other committee members closing their stations. I searched their faces for some hint of resolve, or of cowardice, but found nothing. Is this thing really going to happen? I thought. Will anybody really come through? I could hear my own heartbeat. I was so tense that when somebody socked me in the shoulder from behind, I jumped and dropped a cutting board. Emilio chuckled.
“You scared, bitch?” he asked. He wasn’t just talking about my skittishness.
I looked at the clock. It was 3:25. “Yeah, a little.”
“Well just think about that last time Dante yelled at you,” he said, suddenly very stern. Dante was a sadistic supervisor who rode my ass more than anyone else, and Emilio knew I hated him. I realized he was trying to agitate me. Then I realized it had worked. I was too pissed off to have doubts. “Come on,” he said, motioning towards the timeclock. I silently chided myself for lacking faith in my fellow workers. We clocked out, hurriedly left the cafeteria, and, because I’m a total dork, I started humming the Spanish anarchist anthem A Las Barricadas. Contra el enemigo nos llama el deber.
We met in the campus chapel. I think 17 or maybe 18 of the committee were there. An organizer and a few students were waiting for us, one with a video camera. We held hands in silence, and then the two clergy led everyone in a prayer. The concluding line was something like “God bless the working men and women of all countries. The work of organizing together is holy work. Amen.” We walked back up the hill into the Den, where the GM’s office was. The organizer said she couldn’t come inside with us. We entered from a back door and marched single file up a narrow staircase leading straight to the office door. The older baker started clapping and chanting first, and gradually everyone else joined in: “Que queremos? Justicia!” (most of the committee spoke Spanish as their first language). The kid with the camera was the first to try to go inside. He opened the door, and standing right in front of us was a squat, wide, fireplug of a man: Benito, the district manager. He was above Cruella in the company hierarchy, and we’d had no idea he was going to be there. He slammed the door shut, smacking the student and his camera. Everyone in front pushed against the door, forcing it back open and flooding into the office. We barely all fit. The secretary looked up from her computer, mouth agape. Cruella and Benito were literally backed up into a corner, both trying to shout over us. As rehearsed, we kept chanting until they quieted.
One by one, each of us stepped forward and said our piece. Workers went first, then students. Some people called out abusive managers by name; some said they’d been with the company for over 20 years and still made the same wage as new hires; some listed promises management had broken. One young line cook said “You know I respect you both,” and, rolling up his sleeves to display burns on his arms, “but these have the company’s name on them.” When I spoke, I just talked about my station’s workload and the damn broken dishwasher. Cruella got the message early on that this was our turn to talk, but Benito kept trying to butt in – which was great, because then we could chant at him again at point-blank range. That must have happened upwards of 10 times. Some of us, including a few macho, stoic men, were moved to tears.
After Charlie wrapped it up with the neutrality demand, we did a Si Se Puede union clap, and walked back out into the kitchen. Pandemonium ensued. Everybody was crowded around the door trying to listen in, and when we walked out and mingled with them there was an uproar that was audible from the dining area. Some people were ecstatic, some were terrified, but everyone was interested. I maneuvered my way out of the kitchen and walked up to Tuesday, a cashier I was friendly with, to tell her what had just happened. “You look like you floating!” she exclaimed.
When I came into work at 7am the next morning, there was already a technician there fixing the dishwasher. Chef Ferdinand was doing the dishes. Benito emerged from the office wearing an apron and crawled on his hands and knees to clean out the floor drains. More than one manager made a point of going around to each station and complimenting everyone’s work. It was immensely satisfying to watch. Their desperation was palpable.
Sure enough, no less than 36 hours after D-day, the company signed a neutrality agreement. Pressure from the students had yielded pressure from the administration, and if they wanted to keep their contract with the school, they really had no choice (I suspect the fact that we had video of Benito slamming a door on a student might have helped encourage them, too). This meant it was now illegal for them to run an anti-union campaign. They’d ignore it and campaign against us anyway, but they had to be a little more covert about it, so I think it bought us a measure of breathing room. The union submitted our petitions to the labor board. At the next committee meeting, they told us the election was scheduled for the end of April. The managers kept trying to garner “no” votes, putting on happy faces and wooing us with newfound kindness. The supervisors did their dirty work: intimidation, surveillance, and just generally being cops. We continued to organize around issues. It felt good to finally be out in the open about it.
At first it baffled me that we’d won our first demand without firing a shot, so to speak. What kind of second-rate, off-brand class war was this? Why build power if not to wield it? With one possible exception during the contract fight later that year, we never did anything to inflict direct economic damage on the company. And yet we were winning concessions. How?
Saul Alinsky – certainly no revolutionary, but nonetheless a brilliant tactician – once wrote, “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Capitalists the world over know this well. Fear greases the wheels of production everywhere; every wage worker is driven by perpetual negative reinforcement. Employers can coerce us without resorting to disciplinary action because we know they have power. Turnabout is fair play.
There was nothing special about our campaign. Compared to other organizing drives against the same company, it was utterly unremarkable. Some of those were bitter, protracted conflicts that culminated in strikes, boycotts, lockouts. Our militancy never exceeded a handful of rowdy delegations. Management’s reaction never extended beyond a few bullshit layoffs and firings. We won our election, got some managers fired, kept agitating for a year throughout negotiations, and ended up with affordable healthcare and a reasonably good first contract. But our negotiator settled for a raise of $1.50 over three years: 20 cents less than the minimum offer we had agreed we’d accept. There was at least one private meeting between the union and the company that I know of. For all the organizers’ efforts to involve and mobilize us, the union was still profoundly undemocratic: shop stewards were not elected, but appointed. Eventually, I got fired for being late. By then I didn’t have the heart to fight for my job back.
Full of surprises as ever, Archie Bunker’s had a change of heart since I’ve been gone. Last I heard he was on the committee. Woe to whichever manager is first in his line of fire.
I don’t mean to hold up this campaign as a model for comrades to emulate. There was nothing revolutionary about our fight. It depended on the NLRB. It ended when we got a contract. It was extremely reliant on paid staff, who, while they may have performed admirably, did not equip workers with the skills that would make them obsolete. I wish I could say we bossnapped the GM, we occupied the dining halls, we pushed the level of struggle past its limit…but I can only write about what actually happened. My hope is that fellow workers can learn something from our modest achievements, and go on to accomplish more marvelous feats of rebellion.
If there’s a moral to my story, it’s this: all genuine organizing transforms people. Even the most restrained, mediated campaign takes intensive relational work to get off the ground – and once it has, can awaken workers to our own power. This should be even truer for struggles with revolutionary aspirations.