Lessons from small shop organizing


A significant amount of organizing experience in the IWW comes from working in relatively small workplaces such as stand-alone single shops or franchises of multiple smaller shops. These places present their own set of difficulties and opportunities. Lou Rinaldi talks about what happened at a former job of his in this piece.

Lessons from small shop organizing

by Lou Rinaldi

From May 2012 to August of 2013 I was involved with organizing my workplace, a local small business in Providence, Rhode Island. My experience with that organizing, which lasted about a year before the campaign ended, has given me a lot of perspective that I plan on taking with me for the next time I’m organizing. I wanted to take the time to write down my thoughts and turn them into coherent lessons for my fellow workers, to aid in the creation of better organizers and better organizing campaigns.

The company I was organizing at was a local bakery and café, with three retail stores and one production facility. The makeup of the retail stores was almost entirely young whites. Production was more mixed, there were slightly more Guatemalan immigrants working there than young whites. The gender makeup of the company was fairly mixed in retail, but production was mostly male workers. There was one transgender worker at one of the retail stores and a number of queer/LGB workers at all of the locations. All in all, there were around 80 employees. Each location had a general manager and an assistant manager, there was one manager who was above the store managers, and then the two owners.

I began organizing there with a pretty low profile. I kept a workplace journal, where I mostly tracked my hours, took note of any broken equipment, and if we were short staffed or not. I also noted negative comments about work from my coworkers. At this point I was just getting to know people, being hired in mid April 2012, I at first didn’t think I would try to organize the job. After beginning to feel comfortable at work I started to have more pointed conversations with people. Finding out the issues they felt were important, and also poaching some of my own ideas on what might be wrong with the place, were my top priorities.

The issues were pretty standard, such as the wages were low for most workers. When I started working there the minimum wage in Rhode Island was $7.40 an hour (it’s now $7.75) and starting wages were $8 at the company. If you stuck with the company for a year and got trained as a barista you would make $9.75 – but turnover was high so not too many people ever made it to that pay rate. Despite being generally known as the best café in Providence, it started its workers with lower pay rates than all of the other specialty coffee shops in the city (almost all of the others start you out at $9). Most of the workers were part-time so they didn’t qualify for benefits (health insurance, a 401k, and 2 weeks paid vacation). The hiring practices of the company were blatantly racist (they essentially only hired young, attractive, hip whites… Although I wouldn’t want to claim myself in the categories “attractive” or “hip” necessarily).

Things were fairly slow going, until the fall of 2012 when another IWW member, Ally, got a job at my location. Things at the shop were deteriorating. Several long time employees left, and it was very obvious to the workers that it was over working conditions and the lack of opportunity at the shop. Shift supervisors at the shops lasted about 6 months before stepping down from their positions or quitting. We were understaffed every weekend in the holiday season.

Then in December things seemed to come to a head. The company let us know that January 2nd was the anniversary of the opening of the first store. To celebrate, every year they donated that days profits to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, a nonprofit that gave food to the homeless. This year, the announcement told us, we would graciously be “donating” the employee tips as well. Needless to say, this upset many of the workers, and the other Wobbly and myself saw it as an opportunity to move things forward.

We immediately went to two other workers, Meghan and Shanna, who were close to us and talked to them about the issue – they were upset and wanted to take action. We began meeting as a committee with the immediate task to be resisting giving up our tips on January 2nd, but we also took note that the problems at the company went beyond this one incident. We needed to struggle against the low wages, lack of benefits, and inconsistent scheduling there, too. We mapped out the workplace and figured out whom we felt were the social leaders. Two of the shift supervisors were our first targets. Ally and Meghan made plans to see the supervisors and brought up the issue to them, they learned the shift supervisors were upset but were scared of company retaliation if they said anything about it. I met and talked with three other workers over the next few days and they were upset as well.

The committee met again and decided on what we needed to do: calm people’s fears of individual retaliation by taking collective action. We decided our action would be a petition signed by as many of the workers as we could get at our store. After which we would present the petition to our manager in a “march on the boss.” Almost immediately after trying to move forward on this we began getting push back from the company. Somebody we had talked to tipped management off about us. Each member of the committee was talked to individually mostly in nonthreatening ways. Shanna was simply told that they get that they have been upset lately but they shouldn’t forget our “open door policy” with the owner. On the other hand, a manager told me “it would be a bad idea if I sign any petitions.”

At this point we attempted to bring the non-IWWs into the fold a little more. Up until this time, Ally and I had not disclosed that we were union members. We had meetings with Shanna and Meghan and told them that we were in the IWW, what the IWW was, and that we think the company should be unionized. We let them know we weren’t asking them to join the IWW right now, but that later on we would. We gave them some things to read about the union, as well as Labor Law for the Rank and Filer, and explained its politics at little bit. Both Shanna and Meghan took it pretty well, and (somewhat unfortunately) my political radicalism was already known in the workplace, so it wasn’t shocking to learn about it for them.

We were motivated to go through with what we started, but just as we tried to push forward, the company conceded. They would allow workers to donate their tips if they wanted to, but it was no longer mandatory “donations.” This took a lot of steam out from under our efforts. Even though the company was undoubtedly scared by the fact that even a few workers were unhappy and willing to do something about it, it hadn’t appeared that way to our coworkers.

We decided to reevaluate the workplace, to remap, and to figure out what the issues were again. We also decided we needed to expand the committee and we had in mind a few workers who we felt would be most likely to join. I had a few one on ones, but most of the other committee member began to flake. In turn, I started to burn out as I tried to hold the committee together. Meghan and Shanna both decided the company wasn’t worth it to them anymore. Over the next few months they both found other jobs and left. Soon after, Ally decided to leave and also stopped participating in the IWW (there were reasons unrelated to the campaign for this, though she is still sympathetic to us Wobs). Two workers who I had been having one on ones with in an effort to bring them in also decided to move out of state. Then in April 2013, major personal issues hit me and I decided to take time away from organizing to spend more time taking care of myself.

The campaign ostensibly went on until the end of the summer, when I officially decided to call it. In that time several new workers were hired who were sympathetic, and I had a few one on ones, but generally felt too burnt out to pursue it further. I decided it was important to reflect on the campaign and to try to get the Providence IWW back on its feet after it had shrunk over the last year or so from a height of 27 members to a low of about 5 (similarly to when I had first joined).

Despite the whiteness of the committee, I was the only male on it, and two of us weren’t straight. Given the composition of the company, this was pretty good. However, we lacked a good footing in the entire company. Our committee and nearly all of our contacts were only in our store, but there were two other stores and the production site where we had no presence and almost no contacts. The contacts we did have were neglected as we pursued securing a base at the shop we worked at. Ally and I did not push hard enough for the two other committee members to join the IWW and we did not build the committee when we should have. We also did a bad job of keeping track of our one on ones (we didn’t keep written reports on them). At the same time, we received very little support from the Providence IWW branch, except from one member who attempted to salt into the company and came very close to getting a job at the production facility (he is fluent in Spanish, too, and I think this could have given us a lot of momentum). This was as much due to lack of capacity as anything else, something that I think all small branches will struggle with.

I think calling off this campaign was a good thing; because I came to believe it simply wasn’t strategic. Taking on a local company presented itself with hurdles that Wobs would do well to simply avoid. The company was tight-knit, the management was fairly benevolent, and cultivated a real feeling of family. Despite low wages or lack of access to fulltime employment, workers were rarely disciplined. In my time working there for a year and half I saw only one worker ever receive a write up. When I worked for a corporate restaurant as a waiter before this job, most workers received at least one write up every month. The company was relatively small, and people worked in even small units. My shop had about 15 workers. I think bigger workplaces are simply more strategic. Finally, the composition of the company, being almost entirely white workers, made it an unstrategic target, because they were not representative of the composition of Providence’s working class.

So where does one go from here? Well, I learned a few things.

1) Pick bigger, better targets. I think that by picking up the existing IWW campaigns at corporate targets we will be more successful, though we may have to consider how we approach them.

2) Recruit to the union, don’t be an informal clique just trying to resist the company. I sometimes feel that our campaign played a fine line from a few disgruntled workers “going it alone” and a genuine attempt to organize the workers in the shop. If we had built a more formal organization, this pitfall could have been avoided more thoroughly.

3) Organize the IWW. It’s time to ditch “brand name workers union” in favor of real IWW locals. It’s not just something I believe in theory, but during my time organizing I found that the people I talked to about the IWW were not afraid of it. The politics didn’t scare them, they trusted me and other FWs because we built relationships with them, and most likely would have joined if it were pursued more seriously.

4) Dare to struggle, dare to win. Take risks and go on the offensive.

My time organizing at small shops helped me learn a lot of the basic skills that are invaluable to any organizer. My goal as an organizer is to take these to the next shop, hopefully something bigger. Bigger because I think we’ll find that there are more broad possibilities for organizing, less of a clique/family mentality, and a better cross-section of the working class. In regards to the IWW as a whole, we should take lessons from the small shop organizing we’ve done, but we should go beyond it. We maybe carve a niche there, but we won’t become the new world in the shell of the old there.