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WATCH OUT: Kansas City is Organizing (with the IWW!)

By FW Zachary M.- September 9th, 2011

A new organizing campaign is in full swing at a sub-sandwich shop. No, it’s not Jimmy Johns, but a local Kansas City deli and pizzeria. The campaign, initiated by a brand new member in a brand new branch, started about four months ago when a worker joined the Wobblies and then realized that the IWW is the perfect platform for making changes at the oppressive restaurant he works at. I am that worker, and this is the beginning of our ongoing struggle to take over our workplace.

I started working at the shop about two years ago but only started to organize after becoming a Wobblie in April. After a mixture of stabbing in the dark, taking advice from the group that would later become the Greater Kansas City Branch, attending a wonderfully helpful meeting with some Wobblies from the Starbucks Union in Omaha in May, and then receiving an exceptional Organizer Training in June, some real organizing started to take place. Energized and educated by the Organizer Training, I started to rally my co-workers to defend each other at work. These activities lead to our first meetings where we committed to solidarity in the workplace and began to figure out the concrete problems at our shop. After a few more weeks of organizing and trying to establish some concrete ground from which to move forward, management decided to rearrange the structure of the store and started clamping down; enforcing new and old policies alike. This new enforcement of the rules led to understaffing as workers were fired or left due to frustration over harassment in the workplace. Management refused to replace these workers and then expected the few remaining workers to pick up the slack.

Then, at the beginning of August, things at our workplace started to heat up. Corporate management decided that they want to open more locations so they need a whole new set of rules and a rigid cost cutting strategy to squeeze every last penny out of every store. To do this they are using our location as a guinea pig and transferred in a management loyal worker who has worked for the company on and off for the last 20 years. This person, whom we refer to as the Corporate Manager (CM), for lack of a better term, is not a manager but is in charge of enforcing the new rules and cutting costs. During this transition, the assistant manager was fired due to rumors that he was taking home extra food.

The weekend after the firing, I was away on vacation, so the store was more understaffed than usual because the precedent is that no one is called in to cover shifts no matter how much notice is given that a worker will be off. On Saturday there were only two line cooks, Fellow Worker Charlie and another worker. The other line cook was sent out on a catering delivery. Our store never does catering on Saturday and the worker who was sent out had never done catering before. This left FW Charlie alone to do the work of what normally is done by three workers. The store starts to get busy with the lunch rush, so FW Charlie starts running back and forth between the lines making sandwiches and running them down to our expo line which is being worked by our store manager. FW Charlie forgot to write the name of a sandwich on the wrapper (writing the names on the wrappers is a new, superfluous policy being enforced as one of the many brand new “corporate” rules because the manager refuses to read the tickets we give him with the sandwiches). The manager picks up the sandwich and yells “WRITE THE NAME ON THE GOD DAMN SANDWICH!” and throws the sandwich at FW Charlie. Not surprisingly this upsets FW Charlie. He calmly takes off his hat and apron, clocks-out, and leaves without saying a word.

Charlie called me from his car, at a loss for what to do. We talk it out and decide it would be best to head off the story and talk to upper management before the offending manager can talk to them. After calling all the other stores with no reply, Charlie calls back up to our shop to inform the manager that they need to talk about what happened and also let the manager know that he would be coming into work the next day. To this, management replied, “As far as I’m concerned you’re done here!” The next morning, an hour before Charlie is about to go in, he calls the District Manager (DM) and explains the situation to her. She tells him to come in, they sit down with the CM, and Charlie again explains what happened. Once the store manager gets in, FW Charlie, the DM, and the store manager went over it and the store manager apologized. At this point everyone goes back to work as normal and there are no repercussions for the sandwich throwing manager. We later found out that the same day FW Charlie was assaulted with the sandwich, our only weekend pizza cook was fired for reasons not related to organizing.

I got back into town that night and we called a meeting so we can figure out what happened and how to proceed. We decided that good documentation of the incident and a serious effort to push towards marching on the boss are the best moves we can make.

Due to the chaotic weekend, the DM was in our store the next day. During her shift it came to her attention that Charlie and I were never given new worker orientation, in other words, made to sign the rulebook. We were pulled off the line and read the employee handbook word for word and with particular emphasis placed on the reasons we could be fired. Stunned by the audacity of this move, we just went back to work and did not have time to discuss it until after our shift.

The next weekend, weekend Charlie and I were pulled aside and yelled at by the CM. I was told that if I ever ate more than my allotted shift meal she would tell the DM and I could be fired. I explained that what she saw me eating was a sandwich that a customer had returned and we were going to throw it away and that the allotted shift meal I took home was also food that was going to be thrown away at the end of the night. She became even more aggressive and said that all food that is returned by customers should be thrown away and we are not allowed to eat it anymore. Charlie was told that the “Zac and Charlie show needs to stop immediately” and that we need to stop being insubordinate. Charlie asked how we have been insubordinate. She had no answer and just walked off.

That same weekend we were informed that we were no longer able to take breaks: this means no smoke, rest, or lunch breaks at all, even on shifts that last up to nine hours. After a little research we discovered that there is no such thing as a federal law mandating breaks. Break laws are left up to the states. Missouri and Kansas have no laws mandating breaks. This was an inhumane move to assert more power and gain labor product per hour, though this is the push some of our fellow workers needed to get involved. Seeing direct action as our only option aside from quitting, we decided to write a demand letter and do a march on the boss to serve the letter.

We met and brainstormed ideas, wrote the first copy and send it out to those who could not make the meeting for suggestions, edits, and approval. After a weekend of edits we set the date for the march in two weeks. During those two weeks we continued to edit, planned out how the march should take place, reasoned through the possible responses from management, and continued to organize at our store.

The Saturday before our march on the boss, I was involved in a car accident on my way to work. After crawling out of the car, I find my phone which is dead. I proceed to take care of the back and forth of the accident while my girlfriend (the driver) is taken away in an ambulance. An hour and a half later, I get to the hospital and call work to tell them what happened and let them know that I will be in later since I was not badly injured. The store manager accepts this and I do not talk with him until I get into work two hours later. As soon as I get in, the CM pulled me aside and asked about my worker’s release form. I respond with confusion because I have never heard of this form before. We go back and forth for a while about this new policy as the CM becomes more and more aggressive and persistent about me clocking out and going home since I do not have a form saying I am able to work. The other workers say that they have never heard of this policy either. After the CM screamed at me to leave, and then walked off, there was not much more I could do, so I left and walked home.

Distraught from the harassment, but seeing no other options, we continued with our plans to move forward and march on the boss. After another week of editing and organizing, the Saturday of our march on the boss comes. There are three workers on the floor before the store opens and as I and another worker get to the lobby of the mall, the workers who are already inside go ask for a meeting. The other worker and I follow; we surround the store manager and give him a copy of our demand letter and then take turns reading every part to him. He responds well, telling us he is sorry and that we will get our breaks back and we will start getting the respect we deserve. He also says that our other demands require approval from management higher up than himself. We take this meeting with a grain of salt and wait to see how things turn out.

We got our breaks back and the harassment stopped for the next couple of days. Though the following Thursday the store manager quits and walks out which forces the DM to come into our store for a closing shift with us. She corners one of the workers and asks for an individual meeting to discuss the demand letter. We knew this was coming as another worker who had helped in the march was cornered and pressured into an individual meeting with the DM earlier in the week. Wanting a group meeting with her and refusing to meet alone, we attempt to explain to her that these are not individual problems and that the letter was not written alone so only a group meeting is appropriate. Not surprisingly she refuses to listen to us or give us a group meeting.

Seeing escalation as our only next step, we wrote a customer letter and had members from our GMB hand them out at the mall in front of our store starting the next day, lasting all weekend, and continuing sporadically after that. Also, we wrote a newsletter for the workers at the other locations to inform them of our progress and are passing them out at the other stores. This has only served to annoy the management and not produced any further gains on our demands, so we are currently focusing on organizing the other stores and making plans to escalate our expression of displeasure over the DM’s refusal to meet with us as a group. In hindsight we can see some mistakes, such as not organizing across the stores sooner, but we are learning invaluable lessons along the way and are striving to push this campaign as far as we can take it.

Our demands are simple and reasonable, we are demanding the hiring of new employees to replace the ones who have left, a yearly review and raise process, proper training for the tasks we are asked to do, guaranteed breaks, respect, and finally to have all rules given to us in writing before we are expected to follow them. We still need a group meeting with our district manager so we can move forward. If you would like to help, please contact us at greaterkciww@gmail.com. This is not a public campaign yet so we still have to be a little careful but we do have plans for out next step and would appreciate your support!