Whatever our situation, we need allies to work successfully for change. We need people to talk with, brainstorm ideas, lift us up when we’re down, and build power by acting together. Many of us involve ourselves in local and national political issues, but what about our workplaces? How do we shift these contexts to help create a more just and sustainable world? Unionization is one key approach. Had the Deepwater Horizon workers been unionized, they could have challenged the dangerous shortcuts that BP was taking without fear of being capriciously fired. Instead, many may well have held back from expressing their concerns for fear of losing their jobs. But whether or not our workplaces are unionized, we need to find engaged allies if we want to make a difference.
When Jorge Rivera was hired at ASI, a small Boston mattress factory with forty production employees, he was paid only $7.50 an hour, but was promised quick raises to $11 an hour. Once on the job, Jorge learned how to coil inner springs, build frames, and sew padding and fabric. He assembled displays for trade shows and helped sell the company’s high-end mattresses to customers. Some days he’d work sixteen hours straight. But his promised raises never came.
Jorge let it pass for six months. “Then after another six months I asked what happened to the original offer,” he said. “I was giving the best of myself, but they said I had to wait a little while.” By the time he finally got a 50-cent raise, well over a year had passed. “It was like they were using me, acting like I was stupid, so I said, ‘I want the raise that you talked about when I got hired.’ I was getting madder and madder, until one day I just stayed home and told them I was going to look for another job. They called and offered me nine-fifty because they didn’t have anyone else to do the work I was doing.”
At that point Jorge realized that “all these other people in the company hadn’t had a raise in three years. People wouldn’t even get their overtime unless they went to the office and complained. I told them, ‘You have to do what I did. Go and speak up.’ “But most were afraid to. While Jorge was born in New York City of Puerto Rican parents, most of his co-workers came from Central America and knew only Spanish. “So I started speaking out for other people, because I spoke English.”
The factory had other problems. The workers’ bathrooms were filthy, “like we were animals. Nobody cleaned them. The drinking water from our fountain came out green. They didn’t give you safety belts for your back when you lifted heavy mattresses. We used hot metal glue from a pump gun, but they didn’t give us gloves or masks.”
When Jorge began talking openly about these and other issues, he says, “the manager told me to look out for myself and they’d take care of me. I felt bad because these were my partners. I was trying to make conditions better so people would be happy and increase production.”
When Jorge heard about workers at another Boston firm who won the right to be represented by the textile union UNITE, he and a few co-workers quietly met with a union representative. “I also started talking with people inside the plant and asking them how they felt about getting paid just five or six dollars an hour, when in that same hour they made three or four top-quality mattresses that sold for eight hundred dollars each. ‘You can’t buy a house with that money,’ I said. ‘You can’t raise a family.'”
Jorge knew his actions were risky. “But I had to do it for the people who were there, even if lost my job.” The managers called a series of company-wide meetings. “They said that if the union came in, the owners would have to close the plant. That’s the first thing they always say.”
But momentum kept building. Jorge addressed groups of people during his lunch breaks. “The management could see us, but they didn’t know what we were saying, because we spoke Spanish and they didn’t.” When the mattress workers finally had a vote, the union won. But ASI offered to increase base wages by only 16 cents an hour. Jorge and the other workers felt they had no choice but to strike.
“Only five workers crossed the picket line,” Jorge recalls. “Even some people who’d voted against the union and had been with the company for years were with us. These were old men and women who’d worked hard all their lives and gotten nothing. I was so happy to see them I almost cried.”
The workers built outside support with the help of UNITE, organizations like Jobs with Justice, and members of other unions. “We told our customers about the strike,” Jorge says, “so they’d call and put pressure for delivery. The company ran out of inventory.” After five days, the company settled. Workers received an immediate dollar-an-hour raise and a guarantee of additional raises for each of the next two years, plus sick days, health insurance, and two weeks’ paid vacation. The bathrooms were cleaned, and there was talk of a cafeteria. “Now people dare to talk with the boss and tell him what they feel,” Jorge explains. “They go by themselves to the office, with the problems they have. They learned to stand up for themselves.”
Even in environments that have not yet been unionized, employees working in concert can produce astonishing transformations, although with far fewer protections. At Chicago’s Inland Steel, four African American employees became concerned about how minority employees were treated. “The paper policies were fine,” says saleswoman Scharlene Hurston, “but they weren’t carried out. When you were involved in meetings, you always felt like you weren’t part of the group. You felt you were invisible. Although you’d speak up and have a reasonable opinion, your ideas would be ignored or discarded. Then someone who was white would bring up an almost identical proposal, and everyone would jump to embrace it. Forty percent of our plant workers are minorities and they had a common voice through their union. But it stopped when you got to the upper levels. Out of two hundred managers in sales and marketing, we had three African Americans. We felt totally isolated.”
Fed up with the lack of progress, Scharlene began meeting informally with three other African American colleagues who had individually approached management to discuss advancement practices, only to find their complaints dismissed. They echoed Scharlene’s judgment that “the situation violated principles I hold very dearly, about doing what’s right and truthful and honest.” Over a period of months, they brainstormed together, finally deciding to approach Steven Bowsher, a white general manager they respected. Inviting him to dinner, they told him about the racist jokes, derogatory comments, and overt and covert obstacles that they and others had faced at Inland. Although Bowsher was sympathetic, he found the examples abstract and remote from his experience. But he was interested enough to take a two-day race relations seminar led by a longtime civil rights activist, and unexpectedly saw his company with new eyes.
“Suddenly, we weren’t talking at each other,” Scharlene Hurston recalls, “we started to talk with each other.” Bowsher had his entire team of managers attend the seminar, then established an aggressive affirmative action plan. His department began to systematically promote minorities on the basis of their total years of experience and the general strength of their skills, even if they’d been stuck for years at the lower levels of the corporate hierarchy. After some prodding from Bowsher, Inland’s president attended the same seminar, convened a meeting of top officers to deal with racial issues, and seriously solicited the opinions of women and minority employees.
Scharlene’s group met resistance, of course. “When you take on something controversial, you’re going to get shot at,” she says. “We all had colleagues who explained to us how our future looked so bright—if we just divorced ourselves from those other people who were causing trouble. Most of our opponents weren’t bad people. They were simply ignorant, afraid of controversy and change.”
But that didn’t stop the reformers. “We energized each other,” said Scharlene. “When one of us got tired, the others were there to pick them up.” Besides, it was no longer just the four of them. Each major department and manufacturing plant now had a group to address racial and sexual inclusion. When Bowsher became head of Inland’s now-independent Ryerson Coil division, he appointed the company’s first African American general manager and first Latino and female plant managers, conducted a major campaign against sexual harassment, and revoked a long-standing policy that made the office areas off-limits to ordinary workers. When the division finally turned a profit, after years of losing money, he attributed its success to unleashing the energy and creativity of workers who finally felt they had the respect and support of management.
“A corporate culture takes forever to create and forever to change,” said Scharlene. “But the issues have been legitimized. We’ve learned the art of negotiation and the strength of solidarity. Before, there were little pockets of questioning, or people denying that these issues existed at all. Now people aren’t nearly as afraid. They’re much more ready to speak up.”
Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of “Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times” by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin’s Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, “Soul” has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it “wonderful…rich with specific experience.”
Loeb also wrote “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,” the History Channel and American Book Association’s #3 political book of 2004. For more information, to hear Loeb’s live interviews and talks, or to receive Loeb’s articles directly, see www.paulloeb.org. You can also join Paul’s monthly email list and follow Paul on Facebook at Facebook.com/PaulLoebBooks
From “Soul of a Citizen” by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.