Note: “Kingdom of Whales” is the codename for an organizing campaign that is not yet publicly affiliated with the IWW. The author is a worker in the shop and a branch member who has been organizing at the shop for some time. Originally published in the General Organizing Bulletin (GOB) the IWW’s internal members only newsletter.
The following is a report back on a Direct Action that was done by the workers in my shop in December. The shop is a county run recreation center outside DC that contains an Olympic size swimming pool as its main feature, but also several other major amenities such as a gymnasium and some basketball courts. The workers involved are all lifeguards at the rec center as am I. We organized a March on the Boss in response to the lack of transparency regarding the presence of COVID cases in the workplace. The protections afforded to workers throughout the pandemic in this country have been largely pitiful and practically non-existent. Surrounded by disinterested managers and a plenty of new protocols that act as little more than false security in the face of pressure to bring in revenue as normal it can feel like there is nothing the workers can do to act in their own defense. I hope that the following can inspire others to believe the ability of the workers no matter how young, how uneducated, or how undervalued can take steps when the occasion calls for it and they’re armed with the knowledge of their own self-worth.
During the run up to Christmas it had become common knowledge in the rec center that two people who worked there had tested positive for COVID-19 in the recent weeks. One of whom was the assistant manager and the other was the program coordinator; both of whom work in the back office area together frequently. Prior to this revelation I had been aware that in the aftermath of our reopening the facility back in July after shutting down for the pandemic there had previously been at least 2 workers who had tested positive for covid. These were also not reported to staff, so the fact that would not tell us this time was honestly not surprising; however conducting agitation conversations around the subject was something I had been doing on and off for months and the general consensus from the workers I talked to was that they did expect to be informed of any confirmed cases so that they could take any precautions they felt like they needed to do in order to protect themselves and their families. Such basic human decency should not be too much to ask for, but in a system where workers, especially young workers, are treated like expendable afterthoughts we unfortunately cannot make such assumptions of decency from bosses.
Several factors were at play over the course of these events. First the rumors of a positive case in the workplace did not originate from myself, but from another fairly new lifeguard who received a text from the assistant manager asking her to come in because he was out with covid. Since the re-opening and even before the pool had been severely understaffed so it was not unusual for managers to be scheduled to guard the pool multiple times a week. We also knew about the other case from a front desk shift manager, who act as key holders and general supervisors, that the second office worker had also tested positive. Being able to corroborate multiple sources of info played an important role in convincing workers to take this situation seriously rather than having them come from only me which was pretty much the case before. Another factor that played in our favor was the obvious hypocritical response from management. The Senior Manager (assistant manager’s boss) used the knowledge that he had of the covid cases to make special considerations for himself so that he could get tested on Thursday the week before Christmas. Being the holiday season, many workers were of course preparing to spend time with family, so having knowledge of these cases when they occurred could have provided with them time to get tested. But I guess their lives and families are just not worth the time it takes to send an email. To make matters worse the assistant manager had returned to work while still showing symptoms in blatant violation of standard policy. Thirdly, in response to hearing that we were talking amongst ourselves about this issue the Senior Manager sent out an email responding to “rumors” declaring that he was not in fact withholding information while protecting himself; he did confirm at least one positive case but not the other which we already knew about. If you were not withholding information than why are you telling us now? And why are you still not telling us the whole story? I love how bosses can’t admit anything without accusing you of doing something wrong first.
Well for us lowly rumor mongers this was the last straw and after aggressively 1-on1ing as many people as I could I convinced them that the time was right to have a March on the Boss targeting the Senior Manager which I billed as a “surprise group meeting”. We had a Zoom meeting the night before where we discussed how it would go down. I suggested that I should lead doing the intro but insisted that everyone who wanted to participate should have a speaking role. This was my second March on the Boss and having been outed as a ringleader almost immediately last time I knew that success depended on others stepping up. I was nervous going into it. We were rushing through the steps to be sure. The committee I had assembled was quite young; only myself and one other worker who had been organizing with me over the last year were over 21. The rest were in high school and one in their first semester at community college. At this time all except myself and one other worker were women and non-men. Most had not worked at the shop for more than a 6 months, but they saw clearly the injustice that was being done to them. Night came and morning followed. I messaged my branch for emotional support. I had been fired from another job recently for organizing and I know I couldn’t go into this without knowing they had my back. Strange how such small acts of defiance can have such dire consequences for our lives. Luckily for me the workers in my revamped committee were more awesome than I could for have ever asked.
I came in early around 2pm. My shift was usually at four but this was the time when the shifts usually switched over giving us the numbers we needed to participate. Some people could not make it, but I was delighted to hear that during the course of the shift one of the committee members had recruited someone else to join us in the action! This gave us six. We were lucky enough to have some time to practice our march and delivery on the Senior Manager. Always roleplay your Direct Actions! When we began to do this another lifeguard on only her second shift saw what we were doing. She asked us what was going on. The others told her passionately how management was lying to us and how we needed transparency. She was shocked but also expressed how cool it was we were taking action. She asked if she could join too! This was amazing! She did not feel comfortable speaking but did want to be present during the march; she even helped us role play the action again by standing in as the manager. We were ready and our confidence in ourselves and our righteous cause was high. We called upstairs to the office and asked if the Aquatics Manager was currently there as he usually is on Sundays at this time. We got off the call and discovered that he was not there in fact. Dammit! We had done all that prep work for nothing? After talking it over for a few minutes we decided to ambush the ranking shift manager instead after agreeing to tone down our emotionality somewhat. I believe we made the right choice to proceed; trying to reschedule could have killed our momentum and demoralized these young organizers in formation. Direct Action is oxygen they say in the OT 101. It was time for some fresh air.
We marched single file upstairs past the front desk and into the back office. The shift manager was doing something in the supply closet. I approached her and calmly but firmly and told her that we all needed to talk. The immediate shock seeing us all up there was all too apparent on her face. “Why the hell is everyone up here?” she exclaimed. The tone was just too perfect to describe. I explained to her that we wanted to talk to the Senior Manager but that he wasn’t here so she would have to relay the message and asked her to sit down and hear our demand. After that the committee members delivered their pre-practiced lines clearly and coolly. First went the member who had been organizing with me for over a year and was already a union member. She began by emphasizing the desire for cooperation but also the need for transparency. Next another worker, who was only 15 years old, demanded that we receive notice of COVID cases by email and expressed how she felt that it was disturbing how managers are pressuring people to come to work when they don’t feel safe or might be having symptoms. The next worker confirmed this was the case and told the MOD how the assistant manager had texted him to come in despite fearing he had been exposed to covid BECAUSE of the assistant manager. Two other workers still in high school relayed how they both lived with people who would be considered high risk; one lived with their grandparents and the other had a sister with serious asthma. They both expressed doubt about their willingness to continue working if things continued as they have. All this happened while the last worker who we just recently recruited stood and watched. I then handed the special agreement that we wanted the managers to sign to the MOD and told her that we wanted to hear back by Wednesday whether or not they would agree to sign. She protested by trying to shove some policy paperwork in our faces, but we stood firm and she agreed to pass on the demand.
After we left, I was firmly blown away by how courageous everyone had been. There were hiccups to be sure and it was definitely disappointing that our intended target was not actually there, but I felt it was already a real victory that we had come together to express our grievances and make a concise demand. Direct Action is its own reward. Back downstairs we were able to do an immediate debrief and talk about what went right and what could have gone better. I quickly turned it into an inoculation conversation and asked them what they’re fears were. Most of them were feeling pretty good, but I cautioned them against speaking to management alone and if approached to just repeat the demand and say they were uncomfortable talking about it anymore. I then tried to inoculate them against managers trying to disparage members of the committee or mischaracterize what we had done as inappropriate even going so far as to do a mock roleplay where I played the manager trying to interrogate them and pry for information. They all understood what to expect now.
They ultimately did not agree to notify us of covid cases as we demanded, but instead relayed the demand to Park Authority HQ who then set up a semi-mandatory meeting over video chat for us to attend and address our concerns. We predictably got a bunch of patronizing drivel and non-promises of some sort of notification process in the future. They couldn’t even decide whether or not they would be using email! Needless to say meeting was thoroughly unconvincing and even with my low expectations was a disappointment, yet it was impressive that we were able to scare the entire leadership of the parks department to have a special meeting just for us. The other committee members felt the same, and they were now more convinced than ever that taking action ourselves is the way forward. We have since escalated to work to rule and slowdown tactics.
As we continue to meet and discuss next steps I am continually inspired by the resolve and sense of self-worth exhibited by my co-workers. If you are organizing your workplace I hope you can do so with confidence in those workers, who may lack experience and certain political persuasions, to fight alongside you and contribute in major ways. Do not underestimate them or get in your own way. We will continue to fight on and show the bosses that we know what we’re worth and that we are worth more than them. When all the workers begin to see things that way, that is how we build a revolutionary union. What organizing at my shop has shown me is that they already know; what is left to do is organize and act.
Since this was written the assistant manager has been “transferred” to another department. This was sudden and unexpected. We believe that this was in direct relation to the organizing that has been going on including the circulation of a public petition for the county to change its covid notification rules that received over 150 signatures in less than a month. We fired our boss! Afterwards a temporary replacement was brought in to “fix” things. Subsequent negotiations resulted in them agreeing to give us 2 weeks notice on scheduling, new uniforms, and address the short staffing situation. Management has since mostly kept its promise on scheduling and is appearing to be addressing the short staffing although not with the gusto they should be. Most significantly, management did FINALLY release a statement saying they would modify covid notifications protocols to include the posting of written notices in common work areas. Although this falls short of what was initially demanded the workers feel satisfied with this change as it is most definitely an improvement. Management has retaliated indirectly in several ways, but we are getting results! Organizing will continue and with our union’s support we will continue to win.