By Auriana Fabricatore
Fear is one of the most potent tools that bosses use against us. Fear that we’ll be disciplined, have our hours reduced, get fired—they rely on it to keep us from stepping out of line.
By taking group action, workers can turn the tables and aim that fear back at our employers, so they’re the ones too afraid to tell us no.
Sometimes it takes the shutdown of an entire industry, like the West Virginia teachers’ statewide strike. But sometimes, all it takes is three grocery workers angry enough to march on their boss.
I first learned about this technique at the Labor Notes Conference this April. A “march on the boss” is a form of direct action that puts the power of the union directly in workers’ hands.
The concept is simple: employees go together to confront their boss, to air a grievance or issue and demand an immediate resolution.
‘What can you do?’
There are a lot of advantages to this approach, but the best is that it can circumvent a long grievance process. A successful march on the boss can get results right away.
I work as a deli and bakery clerk at a Kroger grocery store in Morgantown, West Virginia, where I’m a union steward.
The stores in Morgantown employ a lot of college students who only stick around for as long as they’re enrolled in school. Because they don’t plan on making a career with the company, they’re often apathetic or ambivalent about the union. One co-worker said to me, “I support unions, I just don’t think I’ll need the union while I’m here.”
That is, until April 12, when he came up to me during my shift, angry. He had just been written up for excessive tardiness.
The problem was, they were scheduling him to work while he was still in class. For instance, one day he was scheduled to come in at noon, but he had class until 2:30. He felt this was incredibly unfair, after he’d been told that the store could work around his schedule.
Two other co-workers, also students, overheard the conversation and chimed in—they had both been written up last week for similar reasons.
As they talked, I encouraged their anger by asking questions: “How does that make you feel?” “Oh my goodness, did they really do that?” “Are you just going to let them get away with that!?”
That last question sent them over the edge. “No!” said one. “What can you do about this?”
I thought back to what I’d learned in the Labor Notes workshop. “I can do something about this, yes,” I told them, “only it might take a few weeks. But I think the three of you can do something about it right now, if you’re willing to go upstairs and confront the manager?”
Of course they were willing—they were mad! And we were off on a mini-march on the boss.
Confronting the boss
We stormed upstairs and into the manager’s office; I shut the door behind me.
The office is very small, so five people was a crowd. The manager on duty turned around from his computer. His eyes got wide.
I opened with, “These three employees have an issue they need to discuss with you.” And then I shut up.
That part is important. I’m a steward who already has a bit of a reputation as a troublemaker. I was there to clarify things as needed, but the people who should be doing the talking were the ones directly affected. And boy, did they.
My co-workers went on for a good 20 minutes. They told the manger how unfair it was that they had been written up—and without a union representative present, at that. They told him how the stress of this job and the lack of understanding from management was not only making it harder for them to work, but was affecting their schoolwork too.
The manager claimed he didn’t realize they were in class. This was the only time I cut in. “You take their course schedules up every semester,” I said. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t know that.” My co-worker followed up: “That’s right, you have my schedule. It’s not my fault you ignore my availability.”
The manager was flustered, embarrassed, and probably a little afraid. He agreed to tear up their write-ups right there, in front of all three, with me present as a union representative. The march was a complete success.
‘What can I do?’
When we got back down to the work floor, my co-workers started to come down from their anger-induced adrenaline rush. One asked me, “Oh my God, can we do that?” I laughed and shrugged: “I mean, you did it.”
Since the issue had been resolved on the spot, there was no need to follow up with management later. All I had to do was tell my co-workers, if it happened again, they should come find me and we’d march right back up there.
Another success of the march came as a pleasant surprise to me. It was a few weeks later when one of the same employees came to me with an entirely separate issue. This time my co-worker asked, “What can I do about this?” A subtle change, but huge.
Plus, all three employees have warmed up to the union and become more active members. They’ve talked with other co-workers about what they can do to address issues at work. In this instance, direct action got the goods.
Auriana Fabricatore is a steward in United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 at Kroger in Morgantown, West Virginia.