This submission comes to us from an IWW organizer about his organizing that led to his being fired and returned to work. Given that firings are the greatest fear we often encounter in organizing, a detailed account like this is valuable for workers learning to organize. Emmett was organizing in a typical environment we find ourselves in; without a union, organizing only semi-publicly, and trying to move forward without reproducing the errors of business unions. Working without contracts, elections, or the typical management union relation, Emmett’s piece helps show the tensions that come out of our work, and how they were able to turn things around.
By Emmett J. Nolan
Originally Published in the Industrial Worker Issue 1761 December 2013.
Arriving to work, I entered through the break room as usual. There, awaiting me was my manager who immediately said that we needed to talk. He told me not to put away my bag; I couldn’t get ready for my shift like I usually did. I asked him if this was a disciplinary meeting but he did not respond directly to the question. He just said, “We need to talk. This will just take a minute.” While walking through the production floor I greeted co-workers as I usually do and I followed my manager into his office. Seeing that no one else was in the office, I asked, “Is someone from HR [Human Resources] going to be here?” He barked back at me, “This is coming straight from HR.” I then asked him if I could have a co-worker in the meeting with me. He denied this request, responding, “Hmmm, no.”
Immediately after the door closed, my manager informed me “this” wasn’t working out, perhaps justifying this by stating I was “clearly unhappy” here. He went through a cursory explanation of paperwork and stated that I was terminated. I did not agree with the judgments and told him so; and when instructed to sign a termination form I refused.
I inquired if the termination was a result of my work performance. “No. You’re a great worker, but a bad employee,” he replied. While still in shock at what was happening, I had enough sense to ask some follow-up questions and see what he’d reveal. Foremost, I was curiously struck by that explicit worker/employee distinction he mentioned, and so I asked him about it. He elaborated that while I was a “leader” on the crew, I was nonetheless disrespectful to the owners. For example he cited the frustration I’ve expressed to other co-workers, including him, about how the owners leave their week-old dirty dishes from the office by the sink and neglect to wash them. With that I readily pointed out how he and everyone else complain to me about just that practice as well.
“They’re the owners, and it doesn’t matter,” he replied.
“Can I work my shift or am I fired?” I asked to clarify that firing was, in fact, underway.
I was told no, I could not work my shift. I inquired if the company would approve my unemployment, to which he responded affirmatively.
I’ve had many a nightmare about being fired from this job; and have thought at length about what I would do should that day arrive. Having seen how managers call unsuspecting co-workers to cover shifts for workers walking into termination, and how they wait for their target to arrive through the break room, I recognized what was happening to me. Previously, when my departmental co-workers and I were better-organized, we discussed what we’d do if one of us was fired for a collective action we’d taken.
First, we’d obviously ask for a witness, and wouldn’t sign anything presented to us. Next, the fired worker would do everything they legally could to stay on the premises and speak with as many co-workers as possible about what just happened. If organizers were on shift, they’d act immediately to stop work and call for an on-site meeting with management. Unfortunately, at the time of my firing our campaign was at a lull. We weren’t taking collective actions on the shared and specific issues (staffing levels, holiday bonuses, profit sharing, etc.) usually discussed on the floor. As a result, I was making the rookie organizer mistake of talking shit about working conditions but not taking any collective actions to back things up. Therefore, management was able to spin a narrative of me being detrimental to morale and to justify firing me accordingly.
The timing of my firing was a further disadvantage for us. My fellow organizer was on vacation and another ally worker had just voluntarily left the company a week earlier. This left me with little immediate support in my department, so there was no one to organize a work stoppage in direct response. In hindsight, after receiving the termination notice, I probably should have immediately walked out and gathered my co-workers, so we could read it together, and thereby avoid management’s typical trap of trying to get me to say something I’d regret within the emotionally charged closed-door meeting.
When I did walk out of the office, I immediately sought my departmental co-workers. As I tried to explain what just happened to one I’d worked alongside for three years, the anger, rage and disbelief inhabiting me turned to sadness and confusion. We hugged, made plans to call each other later and I then went on to have the same emotional conversation another dozen or so times with other co-worker friends onsite. During these conversations I could see the shock and fear in their faces. Having worked for the company for five years, all of them knew this wasn’t about work performance; but was another example of the company retaliating against workers who speak up and pushing out those who they didn’t like. But, without a planned response, or an organizer already prepared to lead one, solidarity had to assume the simpler forms of hugs and handshakes. Yet, to make sure that everyone knew why I was fired, I made a copy of my termination form (on the office copier in front of the boss who just fired me) and passed it off to my co-workers (who in turn shared it with the afternoon crew). In hindsight, those individual conversations and the generalized sharing of the termination form proved extremely agitational for my fellow co-workers, and it assisted the campaign which would eventually develop to reclaim my job.
When I left the premises, I immediately called a co-worker and fellow organizer to confide my termination.
“What’s the plan?” he asked.
Still reeling from it, I didn’t know what to say. We made plans to meet for breakfast. In between chain smoking cigarettes and transferring buses on my way to the diner, I called and texted every current and former co-worker I knew and relayed to them what had happened.
When I sign people up to the IWW and am asked why I’m a member, part of my reply is consistent: “I know that if I get fired for organizing, I know that the union will be there to have my back and fight tooth-and-nail for me to get my job back.” Now that day had come, and for the next four months my fellow workers fulfilled that commitment beyond what I could’ve hoped and imagined.
During the first three weeks following my termination I distracted myself from the realities of unemployment by assisting the committee’s organizers in their efforts to reestablish my employment. As I said earlier, the campaign was at a lull. Yet, prior to my termination we’d been preparing a timeline to reset the organizing campaign. The night I got fired, the committee met with two other fellow workers and we had a focused conversation about our options for response. We distinguished two immediate options: 1) take this firing on the chin and keep the organizing underground or 2) make our first cross-department and cross-store action that would fight to regain my job. Since I was an outspoken worker on conditions of employment, we were confronted with the question: How could we respond to future issues or firing if we didn’t take action on my egregious firing? With a quiet acknowledgement of the immense work ahead of them, the committee decided action was necessary, even if they couldn’t win my job back. We suspected that the company was clearing house and another outspoken organizer would likely be terminated soon, too. And if that happened our position to respond would be further diminished.
Rather than limiting the demand to my reinstatement, we decided to expand it to include addressing the broader issue of the company’s subjective and usually unjust disciplinary procedures. This strategy proved beneficial. Our demands were constructed into a petition letter, coupled with a personal letter I’d written to my co-workers, addressing the charges used to terminate me. The demand for my reinstatement proved motivational for workers I was acquainted with; yet, the broader demand succeeded in acquiring the support of a vaster range of co-workers— who had presumably witnessed and/or experienced the company’s abusive disciplinary practices in the past.
The committee understood that we needed to move fast on the petition, while the issue was still vivid in co-workers’ minds. The anger, immediate and fiery, that grievances can ignite in a worker just as often dissipate when there’s no timely path forward for action: paralyzed resignation often results. So the committee set a few immediate goals to pursue: first, to coordinate a delegation of four to six workers and compose and have 25 workers sign a petition, ready for delivery within a week. Also, more timely, at our Food & Retail Workers United (FRWU) Industrial Organizing Committee (IOC) meeting the next day, the committee presented its escalation plan to other fellow workers for feedback. We then created a “social map” of our workplace and assigned shop organizers to meet with a few dozen co-workers we assessed as potential supporters of the petition.
As the fired worker, my role within the organizing campaign was threefold: 1) Assist with one-on-ones, 2) act as a general task monkey for the campaign’s needs and 3) prepare my case for the Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), if we decided to file. The first role was the most important: setting up one-on-one meetings and assisting with two-on-one meetings with fellow organizers. My usual role in these conversations was to act as the agitational force while my fellow organizer would conduct the education, inoculation and organization tasks. These conversations were highly emotional as we uncovered other grievances, stories of discipline gone awry and the immense fear co-workers had of losing their jobs. Naturally, workers brought up unionizing frequently. For me personally, the hardest component of the one-on-ones was asking a worker to sign the petition knowing I couldn’t definitely assure them I’d be present if or when they faced retaliation.
As the general task monkey, I spent most of my days at the IWW’s office, addressing peripheral tasks of the petition drive. The paperwork— coordinating translation of documents, making copies and getting them to organizers—was to be expected. I feel my most beneficial role was checking in with organizers multiple times a day about their one-on-ones. In those first two weeks, our committee members were regularly at the office brainstorming escalation strategies, one-on-one conversations, and how to reach out to more workers.
Altogether, 34 workers signed onto the petition demanding a forum on the company’s disciplinary procedure and my reinstatement. A week after I was fired, four organizers interrupted a meeting of our bosses, read aloud the demand letter and gave testimonials. Though noticeably uncomfortable, the employers remained confident in their power.
“We will never rehire Emmett,” an owner defiantly stated.
Mistaking the letter delivery as the culmination of our efforts rather than the first public step in an escalation plan, the bosses would soon be proven wrong as internal and external direct actions created an environment which forced the company to accept the NLRB’s determination and settle in my favor.
How I Got My Job Back
Before I detail my role in preparing for the ULP, let me stress another thing: our committee’s direct action escalation campaign and our ULP strategy were largely informed by the experience of assisting and bearing witness to a fellow worker in our branch who was fired a year earlier from another campaign. In that previous campaign, our fellow worker lost what we believed was a solid ULP charge, so everyone questioned whether my fate would differ. The ULP process is a roll of the dice, the NLRB must let working people win a round every now and again in order to maintain worker confidence in the system.
While the ULP process would take over three months, the unimaginable was seemingly about to happen: I was going back to work. I was surprised to be awarded a back-to-work order and a “merit” ruling, which meant the NLRB believed there was compelling evidence that I was retaliated against. Even more surprising news was that rather than further appealing the NLRB’s judgment the company expressed its interest in a settlement—including agreeing to my reinstatement. Though they first inquired if I’d accept a payout settlement, I had already informed the organizing committee and my NLRB agent that I wouldn’t agree to any settlement that didn’t include me going back to work. While at first my position on returning to work was based on principle and a desire to keep the organizing going, reinstatement became very personal as a way to reciprocate the mutual aid given to me by my co-workers. Just as an injury to one is an injury to all, my victory was a victory for all my co-workers.
So, how was this rather unthinkable outcome made a reality? I attribute it to four factors: 1) internal and external direct actions, 2) a solid ULP strategy, 3) training and an experienced community of organizers, and 4) the company’s own naiveté.
First, while I’ll likely never know exactly why management agreed to reinstate me, instinct tells me that without direct action it would never have happened. One thing I am 100 percent positive of is that, without internal direct action, my reinstatement would never have meant so much to my co-workers. The march on the boss, petition signatures, pins and magnets, plus all the time workers took out of their day to meet, brainstorm and motivate each other to take action: all effectively invested my co-workers in the situation. They became active agents within the process from which management had tried to exclude them. Furthermore, I believe the reason the company buckled to the NLRB had more to do with the visible shop floor actions, support and discussion regarding my case than a sternly-worded letter from the NLRB. With the message that I “won” the ULP floating in the air, if the company had appealed the decision they would have run the risk of polarizing the workplace further away from them and closer towards the organizing committee. This was the move that shop organizers were anticipating and which organizers were readying an escalated response to.
Externally, Wobblies within the FRWU-IOC created a Friends of Emmett Committee, tasked to develop a two-month escalation plan to mobilize customers and the community behind my cause. We knew such support would be vital to our morale as organizers and hopefully serve as a lightning rod for further internal action by workers. For every step of the escalation plan, Wobblies in the organizing committee and the friends committee considered how the actions would polarize the workers on the inside.
Our external strategy was largely informed by participation in solidarity actions for fired Wobblies over the course of the past few years. Some of these actions involved just a Wobbly on the job without a campaign, while others contained an underground organizing committee. Often in these previous efforts, organizers applied an immediate and aggressive public approach to both scenarios: the union or solidarity group would escalate almost instantaneously to pickets, rallies, and media coverage and thereby create a new set of obstacles. Organizers found it difficult to increase the intensity of pressure, maintain the frequency of actions, or win unorganized workers over to the side of the cause. While applying this full-throttle emotional and economic leverage can be effective in circumstances of wage theft and when a single Wobbly on the job is seeking settlement of wrongful termination, the presence of an underground organizing committee requires organizers to consider their level of reach within the workplace.
In assessing our committee’s width and depth within the several worksites, we concluded that our committee was too small to conduct public pickets without encountering the same campaign-stalling results mentioned earlier that previous campaigns experienced. The Friends of Emmett Committee developed a measured escalation plan that sought to escalate slowly and provide the opportunity for the external and internal campaigns to synthesize. Simply, organizers envisioned the Friends of Emmett Committee as a tool not to win my job back but to provide public cover for the organizing within the shop and help initiate action.
The first step in the external escalation plan, which coincidentally occurred the day after the company received the NLRB merit notification, was a customer delegation. A group of customers, organized by Friends of Emmett and which included a Wobbly from the FRWU-IOC, delivered and read to an owner in front of my co-workers (and a few random customers) a demand for my reinstatement. We placed the rest of the escalation plan, which included neighborhood postering, canvassing, hand-billing and second delegation, on hold until we heard back regarding if the company was willing to settle.
The second component I credit for my return to work was the ULP strategy the organizing committee developed with the assistance of fellow workers both locally and from across the country. Rather than rushing to the NLRB, I made the direct action campaign of my co-workers a top priority and brainstormed how/if the ULP process could be used to our advantage. As referred to earlier, this was my final role as the fired organizer. During the weeks prior to filing a complaint, I read through previous NLRB affidavits and consulted numerous fellow workers and allied labor lawyers to make sure my case was solid.
For days I went back and forth on the decision to file as the IWW. While the campaign wasn’t public, my involvement within the union was public outside of work. Ultimately, I decided not to file as the IWW or an independent union. Hunches and assumptions aside, I could not prove management knew anything about me being union. Therefore, if I couldn’t demonstrate it and management wasn’t going to offer it, then the NLRB agent wouldn’t be able to prove it. Bringing in the union at this point would only expose organizers to an anti-union campaign they were not effectively positioned to counter. Besides, most relevant to the ULP was keeping the NLRB agent focused on my best piece of documentation: management’s clear violation of an employee’s Section 7 rights, as observable in my termination form.
My charge accepted, I walked into the meeting with the NLRB agent, my affidavit testimony appropriately outlined with all supporting evidence prepared. With such preparation at hand, I was well positioned to substantiate a narrative beginning with me being labeled the head agitator of a petition delivery, continuing through with documented instances of managerial hostility toward me (hello, work journals!), and concluding with a managerial personnel change intended to isolate and, finally, terminate me. Yes, the temptation to go off-topic into other unverifiables was certainly there, but I stuck to responding only to the accusations found in the termination form.
Timing was again very strategic with the ULP. The day after management held an all-company discussion forum which was demanded by workers and in which the ownership defended my termination and their disciplinary procedure, the company received its first ever letter from the NLRB informing them of the investigation. As my fellow organizer told me later, the department manager looked like he was going to vomit when the owner brought him the news.
Next, significant credit for this victory must go to the IWW’s Organizer Training and the community of Wobbly organizers with whom I’m fortunate to share a General Membership Branch. You know how we talk a lot about documentation and those workplace ournals? Well, those were integral in getting my job back. In those journals and my day planners where I recorded all my one-on-one meetings, some dating back years, I was able to piece together a narrative for both my co-workers and for the NLRB. Furthermore, the numerous organizers I learned from in my years within the IWW gave me the skills to know how to respond, while the Wobbly community present around me assisted in the campaign’s strategy (not to mention countless burritos and timely funding from our Organizer Hardship Fund).
Finally, management arrogantly believed that their power would allow them to quietly terminate me and justify it however they saw fit. In doing so, management did most of the heavy lifting, polarizing my co-workers in support of me and giving enough evidence for the NLRB to side with my charge. Among the long list of judgments written on my termination form included documented instances when I was talking to co-workers about staffing levels, profit sharing and our absent holiday bonus. Certainly, I was not the only one who discussed these matters on the shop floor; the surprise withholding of our holiday bonus that year became a consistent topic of frustration and contempt for co-workers throughout the company.
Furthermore, I had participated in several direct actions in the past. One particularly important action involving our entire department was done just beyond the NLRB timeline for a ULP charge. I learned that one could effectively argue how latter individual actions could be protected under the law if judged to be extensions of a previous collective action.
However, this naiveté and arrogance by management will likely not be repeated so carelessly again. Since my firing, the company hired an experienced HR manager and has held several meetings with lawyers to ensure they’re never caught liable for an unlawful termination or any other charge of violated labor or employment law.
Reclaiming My Job
Returning to work was surreal; I was back from the dead, as some of my fellow workers said. The return could not have been better. Rather than quietly walking back on the job as if nothing had happened, my fellow organizers and I decided that we’d use the moment to claim victory and set the tone with management about what to expect from now on. Three fellow organizers accompanied me as I walked back onto the floor. When I re-entered the break room I was greeted with “I Missed Emmett” magnets that covered the lockers and a few that held up copies of the NLRB notification. When I arrived, one worker was there reading the posting and shaking his head in disbelief. I added to my work cap the pins of support my co-workers were wearing in my absence to show their solidarity. My fellow organizers followed me as I set foot back on the shop floor where high-fives, hugs and handshakes awaited me from all my co-workers.
The greeting which I’ll never forget came from the morning dishwasher, an old-timer in the company and a man 25 years older than me. As co-workers separated by our different native languages and different departments, our interactions at work were often limited to a short exchange when he’d pour his daily coffee. The day I was fired, with tears welling up in my eyes and a shocked but all knowing look in his, we said goodbye and shook hands. The day I returned to work I approached him to shake his hand once again, he hurriedly threw down his mop and gave me a hug. Later, he sought me out to express how happy he was to have me back at work.
We then marched on the boss and an organizer presented a letter demanding that I have a witness in my pre-work meeting with management and HR. The HR manager agreed to our insistence that I be allowed a witness of my choice but stated that one could not be expected at future meetings. I felt so much more confident in this meeting because I had a fellow worker there who had my back and was taking notes the whole time.
Throughout my shift that first day back and for the next few days, co-workers stopped and congratulated me and told me how happy they were to see me back. My response to all of my co-workers was “Thank you for your support. I wouldn’t have my job back without it. Todos juntas!” Even some managers congratulated me on putting up a good fight! Regular customers who knew what happened likewise greeted me with hugs and handshakes. For those customers who didn’t know why I was gone, I laid it out that I was fired illegally and that the company was forced to give me my job back because of the support of my co-workers.
Where Do We Go From Here
Arriving to work these days, I’m constantly reminded of the struggle that took place to win my job back. I can’t miss seeing the “I Missed Emmett” magnets scattered across my co-workers’ lockers in the break room as I lace up my work shoes or sit down for a lunch break. In my locker are my NLRB back-to-work order, a welcome-back card given to me by a co-worker, and a picture drawn by the 5-year-old son of a regular who, accompanied by her two kids, delivered the customer letter to an owner requesting my reinstatement. When I walk back onto the shop floor, I’m greeted by the dozens of faces of co-workers who did so much to ensure that I returned to work. Much has changed since I was fired. To the credit of my co-workers and fellow organizers, the question of “just cause” disciplinary procedure was raised publicly. Additionally, workers are questioning our compensation and discussing the need for voice within our work.
While much has indeed changed, the power structure largely remains the same. Until my co-workers and I have the power to determine OUR conditions of employment, I believe it’s my responsibility to continue the fight. As things are now, the lessons and meaning of our victory to win my job back are largely internalized by the workers. We need to make our working conditions subject to the lessons of our victory and institutionalize the conditions we demand. Since I returned to work four months ago, three of my co-workers have quit and a new crew of workers is being introduced to the workplace without the experience of struggle the rest of us shared. So, we must share our stories, organize more aggressively than we have ever before and be ready to not only respond to management’s endless assaults collectively, but to initiate our own plan to win. Let’s keep fighting; there’s no alternative anymore.