By Doug Nesbitt
Going viral this week was a video of a white man in a London, Ontario Sobeys grocery store blocking a young brown man from leaving the store. Pushing him and and threatening a “citizen’s arrest” for being an “illegal alien”, the racist attack is now being investigated by police.
With nearly two million views on Facebook, the video has some people asking why the cashiers in the background are carrying on with “business as usual”.
Odds are the cashiers fear discipline if they stop work and do something, since management retribution is the main obstacle to refusing unsafe work conditions like this. Cashiers also have no protocols or training to deal with such incidents. Fear and lack of training means paralysis, which only allows incidents like this to escalate and put more people in danger.
Organizing for change
Retail and service workers can organize and change this whether they are in a union or non-union workplace.
The key is to organize with your co-workers for collective action. Start by pulling together co-workers you can trust and strategize a two-track strategy of organizing on-the-job action, and placing collective demands on management through a petition. This is your organizing committee.
1. A key ask for the committee is a pact to exercising your right to refuse unsafe work. If such incidents take place, work must stop, whether it means cashiers stop working or servers and retail clerks refuse service to a racist customer.
2. If an incident happens, committee members must take a lead, stop work and get others to stop. Bring business to a halt. As a group, march on the boss and tell them to step in and get the racist out of the workplace. For more advice on how to march on the boss, check out this article.
3. Talking to other co-workers is the major organizing task of the committee. Talk about the incident in London, the necessity to stop such attacks, the right to refuse unsafe work, and how stopping work is necessary to make management make the issue a priority. Emphasize this is a collective effort – everyone will stop work so the situation can be dealt with quickly and effectively by management.
4. Have the committee draw up a petition as a tool for your discussion with co-workers, and to place demands on management for a protocol and paid training for such incidents. Petitions allow you to gauge the confidence, commitment and views of your co-workers on the issue. If someone doesn’t want to sign, don’t get mad. Continue a conversation to try and figure out what is stopping them. Take the issue back to your trusted co-workers and ask for advice. Continue the conversation another day. When you have a solid majority of signatures (two-thirds is strong), have a group of co-workers take the petition to management as a team.
Strength in numbers
Other questions will arise. Will there be an effort to stand alongside the victim of a racist attack as protection, as in the London Sobeys incident? Not everyone can or will do this because there is real danger involved. But if this is the approach taken, treat it as a picket line. The more people involved, the less danger everyone is in. Strength comes from numbers.
Retail and service workers do not have to be powerless in the face of racist incidents and abuse in the workplace. So long as there is active organizing, retail and service workers have the power to shutdown racist harassment while on the job.
Doug Nesbitt is an editor at Rankandfile.ca, and worked for a number of years as a cashier at grocery stores and retail.