november 2015

With this publication, we want workers to see the commonality in our struggles across workplaces, across the city, across industries and across countries. We want to find our common interests so we can come together to organize autonomously against capital, our common enemy.


Statement from Stephanie McMillan

After running my cartoons for five years, Briarpatch magazine (Canada) declined to publish my most recent contribution (written by John Newlands of Workers Struggle-Sudbury with conceptual input by Jan Makandal), which features the President of the collaborationist Canadian Labor Congress kissing the ass of the new Prime Minister. The CLC is a major donor to Briarpatch. Though an alternate cartoon was requested, I felt it necessary to permanently sever our relationship, because to continue it would have been an instance, on my part, of the very opportunism I was criticizing with the cartoon itself. The cartoon will appear, instead, in the Workers Struggle-Sudbury newsletter: http://workersstrugglesudbury.com/


Editor’s note: For the first six months, Workers Struggle-Sudbury had an investigation focus because we were not experienced in interviewing workers. We felt this approach quickly deviated to a more grievance-type focus which was not what we had planned. To try to correct this, we feel ready to shift the focus of the interviews to political struggle for our line. We think this shift has improved the November interview noticeably. So, if we lost you at some point, this is a good time to give us another chance and please let us know if you agree or disagree with our attempt to rectify.

the interview

Andy Vidual works full-time graveyard at Walmart as a stocker, filling shelves in the xxxxxxxxxxxxxx section. He has worked at Walmart for the past three years and he makes $13.25/hour, which includes a $1/hour graveyard premium.

The main areas of struggle in Andy’s workplace are:
• A dick for a boss
• Work pace
• Low wages
• Scheduling

A dick for a boss

Andy: I have a… manager that's a dick.... He's moody.... He plays favouritism.... He's very good at playing the… wave a carrot in front of your face to get you to do stuff, or believe that stuff is happening for you. But... on good days, he's perfectly fine and not a dick.... It's very off and on.... We have… two main managers on overnights. [The dick] manager will correct people right in the middle of the aisle... for something that he doesn't approve of, whereas the protocol is... if you're going to correct somebody, you take them to the back, and you do it in a closed room.... You don't yell at them.... So, I've gone to the other manager on nights that this one manager has been off, and said, "He corrected me in the middle of an aisle where my peers could hear it." And the manager said, "I know.... People have told me this. He's never done it in front of me. I said, "Why do you think he's never done it in front of you? Because he knows there'll be consequences if another manager sees him do it."

Rachael: Do you think that this other manager would stick his neck out for the employees to expose this other manager to a higher-up?

Andy: If he witnessed it? I think so. I would wanna think so. I don't know... this other manager well. He's only been on night crew for four or five months, but I think he would.

Rachael: How do your co-workers feel about the dick manager’s behaviour?

Andy: It's not liked at all…. [But] nor have they gone to, say, call the anonymous employee line, or done anything about it. [They say] it's just another incident....

Rachael: So, you have an employee line that you can call?

Andy: If you see something happening that is not in Walmart's code, you call this hotline.... It can be... an anonymous call, and say, hey, this happened.... Like, sexual harassment, bullying.

Rachael: Have you ever known anyone who called it?

Andy: No, I don't.

Rachael: It's interesting... that the company puts the [anonymous] line out there, but workers... are kind of reluctant… to use it.... [So,] that's one avenue of recourse the company gives you.... Have you ever... talked with your co-workers about what you should do about this dick manager?

Andy: Me personally, or all of us together?

Rachael: In a small group, or in a larger group, or even with just one other person. Have you ever talked with another co-worker about what can be done about this dick?

Andy: No.... But… on one night that I was working, [the dick manager] yelled at this one employee, [he] said, "You're a terrible employee. I've already sent... your termination papers to head office… and I'm working on getting rid of you." You can't say that to someone, let alone in an aisle around his peers. [I told this co-worker], "Well, you know, you can do something about it. You can call the anonymous hotline, you can tell the store manager.” He's like, "I don't care. I'm retiring in two months.... And even if he does fire me, I still get my profit-sharing, I still get my termination money." So he didn't care.

Rachael: So one of the problems with that line of thought is that, a lot of times, people are just going to try and find a better job, or like in his case, he's going to retire. But that leaves the problems in place for other workers, so it's not... an act of solidarity in that sense, because if you try to solve problems together, then it benefits more people than if you just try and go get a different job.... So it's that individual versus collective, which is a hard mindset to overcome in workplaces.... For example, what do you think would happen if the night that you got corrected in the aisle... if you would have said, hey, can you guys come with me over here? I'm gonna challenge him... And say, you actually can't yell at us. If you have a problem with [our] work, you have to speak calmly and take us to the office.... Are you allowed anyone to go with you?

Andy: I don't know if they're required to have somebody with them, if I say, I wanna go to the office, don't correct me here [in the aisle], I wanna go to the office.

Rachael: You're actually more vulnerable if you go alone. It would be better if you could actually get together with other people. 'Cause if you guys could gang up on him, even just a little bit, and see what happens from that?

Andy: See, the problem I have with that though... is I'm on his good side even though I get corrected once in a while, I'm on his good side. I don't wanna be on his bad side. I know people that are on his bad side, and they do not get treated well. People that he doesn't like for whatever reason. Either they're slow employees, or... maybe have challenged him in the past. I don't know.

Rachael: So, the way that he treats you is how he treats someone on his good side? Would you know what other behaviours people who are on his shit list get?

Andy: Yeah, they get in trouble a lot more often.

Rachael: I understand self-preservation-

Andy: Oh yeah.... Like, if he yelled at me, and there were two people standing within ten feet of me, and I said I wanna go to the office, and I want these people to come with me. I don't want you to yell at me in front of these people, and this is not proper Walmart code, I would definitely turn right to his shit list. Whereas, if I did it anonymously, and [said], this manager verbally abused me in front of other employees, hopefully that wouldn't come back to my ass.

Work pace

Andy: We're expected as overnight stockers to do 50 boxes an hour. I'm not worried about myself, I know I do well over that.... I know there are employees that don't make that number, and that's why they're on his bad side. But if I have a week without this dick boss, I'm not concerned about those numbers, I'm concerned about how the stuff looks on the shelf, and not how fast I get it out....

Rachael: How big is a box?

Andy: The main aisle that I work is the xxxxxxxxxxxxxx aisle. If I have a case of xxxxxxxxxxxxxx... that's one [box]. It sits… on top of a tray of 12, so basically for that product, all I do is cut off the plastic, move my stuff back that's already on the shelf and put that case there on the shelf, so that's a quick one. But say if… somebody in another aisle that has another [case] of 12 boxes of cereal, that [box can be a different size]. All cases are a minute… and five. That's the company standard, not just this one boss's or this one store's standard.... The company did a big study on it... a number of stores... and said, "Yep, your average should be one minute and five seconds per [box].”

Rachael: Capitalists are always trying to speed up work to try to get more out of their workers, and so, from a militant's perspective, it's actually proper for the worker to resist that pressure that the capitalist is always putting on them… especially if you notice other workers around you can't keep that pace.... It supports them if you keep your pace slower. Now, it's going back to the exact same point that you made earlier, which was: you want to stay in their good graces. So you have to balance that somehow, staying on the good side, but also supporting your other workers, because if they struggle to get the 50 boxes and you're doing 70, you're going to get used.

Andy: Oh, I'm totally getting used.

Rachael: They're going to say, he can do it faster.... So automatically, you're cutting the throats of your co-workers.

Andy: A lot of them don't do it because... it's too much, and a lot of them just don't do it 'cause they don't give a shit.

Rachael: From a worker perspective, it's natural for workers to be “lazy”…. “Lazy” [is] how capitalists see it. For how workers see it, “lazy” is controlling how we do our work…. So “laziness,” as it's called by capitalists, is actually resistance, it's actually a political stance. It's saying: Look, I'm not going to just jump through hoops for you…. But it's much better to be in a group and be doing that.... I'm just giving you options here. I know that you don't have any aspirations to be an organizer, but maybe, after many discussions… this is something you guys can agree upon- You have breaks with how many people?

Andy: I'd say 4 or 5 people.

Rachael: Do these people all have about the same production rate as you do?

Andy: It's variable, but they're not under the minimum.

Rachael: You could say, look, it's better to control our work together, and you could agree on a number of boxes you'll do that isn't too generous to the company. So you say, let's agree we'll do 52. And then that helps anybody who's sitting at 48. The manager can't really use that against anybody else.... Fifty-two, that could be anything. But if it's 70, then they can really... hit those workers over the head, and then they might lose their jobs.

Andy: Uh-huh.

Rachael: Under capitalism, we're always being asked to think of things from the capitalists' perspective, and not the workers' perspective.... So, this point that is your main concern, which is that this boss has arbitrary and crazy power, that it doesn't make any sense and it's not fair: was I able to convince you… of the possibility that organizing amongst yourselves as workers would be one way to try to deal with this dick boss?

Andy: No, I don't think I would. Like, I'm just not that kind of person. If I was pushed hard enough, I would either stand up to him, or... write to his boss, not caring about my standing in his eyes, but I don't think I'd be the kind of person to coordinate a group. If I heard somebody get... their shit... given to them and then if that employee came up to me and said, look, I don't agree with what just happened. Did you hear what he did to me? And if that employee said to me, will you be a witness to my situation? I'd say yes.

Rachael: I was just trying to see if we could agree that you do think it's important to support your co-workers.

Andy: Right.

Rachael: I'm going to take that as a point that we agree on.

Andy: If [an employee] wants to let it roll, I'm not going to step up for him... unless it was total, complete inappropriate swearing, yelling- even if I heard that, and the employee [said], "Ah, I don't give a shit about it," I would still go above and make an anonymous call.

Rachael: I'm obviously not a fan of the [anonymous] line because it doesn't encourage any collective action, and... there's lots of problems with snitch lines, even on managers.... It promotes the culture of individuality instead of collectivity…. [Does this point] make you see it a different way?

Andy: I just don't think I'm the kind of guy to say, "Hey, you five people, let's get together and do something." And honestly, I don't see five people or twenty people or fifty people or a hundred people changing a corporation's mind on something. Say, if I... put a Facebook group together, of Walmart Canada stockers, and I ended up getting five hundred people saying that 50 boxes is too much, let's make that number 40, I don't see even that many people changing the corporation’s mind....

Rachael: So, first of all, there would need to be a much bigger circle than those five people…. But eventually… you would stop stocking shelves… and then [Walmart] would start to be screwed, and then their warehouses would back up, and then their sales would go down for the day-

Andy: But if I stop stocking shelves, what's to stop [Walmart] from laying me off and just getting some other idiot that can stock shelves?

Rachael: Well, then you struggle for that too. If they were to… fire you... but we're [an] organization at that point, and we have… community support.... By ourselves, we could never go up against Walmart. But… if we were [part of an organization], we could actually demand, and we could have… community organizations, unions, saying, no, we're not going there until you hire those workers back. So it's a snowball effect. That's what organizing does. It gives you the power to be a social force.

Low wages

Rachael: Could you survive on your wage... if it was the five of you without [your spouse’s] job?

Andy: It wouldn't happen.

Rachael: What if it was two of you [at your wage]?

Andy: It would be hard with xxxx kids.... After taxes, I make $800 every two weeks…. To imagine her only getting $1600 a month would just be insane.

Rachael: So do you hear co-workers ever talking about how they struggle to make ends meet with the wages they get at Walmart? How much opportunity is there to talk with other workers?

Andy: Uhm, break times, before, after work, for like five, ten minutes, lunch.... So, maybe an hour a day, depending on, like- people have their normal cliques. I mean, we're not a huge crew, but people sit with the same-ish people.

Rachael: So, how many people do work on the night crew?

Andy: Some nights we'll have 27 people there, some nights we'll have only like, 15. Depends.

Rachael: So there are other staff that are variable?

Andy: Days off rotate [for some workers].

Rachael: So have you heard very much about people struggling to make ends meet?

Andy: Like, I mean, people bitch, “Well, we work at Walmart, we can't afford stuff....” I know a couple that works night shift; one of them is on maintenance, and… one's a stocker.... They have no children but they're obviously living the Walmart wage.... They don't complain about it, I mean, they live in an apartment, and make their bills, have a car.

Rachael: In the US, Walmart workers often have to get food stamps to survive.... Have you ever heard of Walmart workers having to access food banks, or anything like that here? Do you think that Walmart workers should be struggling so hard to make ends meet when the CEO is making such an astronomical amount?

Andy: Sure, the employees could be making more money, but... what's any corporation’s obligation? Their obligation is to do what the government says, do the minimum... and pay your employees maybe slightly more than that. Sure they could, but why would they, if they're not obligated to? Is that Walmart's job to change that? Is that the government's job to change that?

Rachael: I would say it's our job. It's the people's job, workers’ job.

Andy: How do the people change it? How do the people… change what [the CEO’s] making?

Rachael: We’d have to organize.... That's what class struggle is.... The higher the wage of the capitalist and the lower the wage of the worker… means a… low level of struggle, and when there's greater parity, like sometimes you see with unions... there's a bit higher level of struggle. We haven't seen really high levels of struggle in a really long time…. So, we've been in a  period of very low, low struggle, class struggle for a long time, where people are not fighting back, and we are seeing the highest- in Canada... CEOs are about 200 times the wage of a worker.... So, during this period of… low class struggle, CEOs' salaries are through the roof. I mean, they're laughing all the way to the bank, literally…. How does that make you feel?

Andy: I don't know.

Rachael: When I asked you if you thought [your wage] was fair… you didn't really answer.

Andy: No, I guess it's not fair, it's' not fair that I make $13 dollars an hour.

Rachael: And if anything happened to [your spouse] tomorrow... how would you survive?

Andy: I honestly don't know....

Andy: I've been promised raises that never followed through, but again, this is from that one boss. I've been promised to have weekends off, and they never followed through, but again it was from this one person…. You get a raise at your yearly review, depending on how your review went, but there's no mandatory raises outside of that.

Rachael: So when you were promised a raise, you had asked about a raise, and then he said yes and then didn't?

Andy: [My boss said,] "You're getting this much [of a raise] because of your yearly review. Come to me in six months, and I will get you [another] raise." I waited six months, and said, "Hey, how 'bout that raise I was promised?" He said, "I can't do it right now, the budget's too tight. Come to me in a couple months." And so I came to him a couple months later thinking- maybe him thinking I would forget about it, or whatever. And [he said],"Oh, I can't do that now," for whatever reason. And so after four times, I just stopped asking about it…. It's a carrot waving in the face.

Rachael: When you talk with workers, is there ever much discussion about the workers making the commodities for the stores here?

Andy: The people that manufacture the products?

Rachael: Yeah.

Andy: No.

Rachael: Do you know about Rana Plaza? In Bangladesh, when… 1500 hundred workers... sewing… for Walmart... died [when the building collapsed]?

Andy: No. When did that happen?

Rachael: That happened... two years ago.... [The workers] were forced to work that day [despite visible cracks in the building and despite the evacuation of higher classes on lower floors].

Andy: I'm not defending Walmart. I have no reason to, but whose decision was that? It was the shift supervisor of that place? It wasn't Walmart's decision?

Rachael: Well, it's Walmart’s responsibility to understand what's going on in their factories at all times.... They never do, and they always claim, “Oh, we didn't know that was going on,” but it's an easy way out for them. And it's one of the other reasons we say that organizing is really important, is to offer solidarity to workers in other countries as well.

Scheduling

Andy: The people that have either Friday and Saturday off, or Saturday and Sunday off, are the people that have been there the longest, because of seniority (yet there is no seniority), or his favourites that have the weekends off.... I had Saturday and Sunday off for maybe close to a year... and then he came to me and said, "Look... I need to change your days off. We're changing a bunch of people's days off. You're one of them, I'm sorry. I will try to get you these Saturdays and Sundays off because I know your wife has Saturday and Sunday off as well." And even when I approach the subject, I can't get those days back. [The manager says], “I can't do it right now, scheduling Saturdays are really busy, blah blah blah.” So yeah, it's just waving a carrot in front of your face.

Part of the problem that a lot of people that work weekends see is that we don't have enough coverage on the weekends, and it's because favourites are played, and people that have either been there longer, or people... that are favourites, have the weekends off.... On a Tuesday night – the store's not that busy on a Tuesday – we don't have as much freight... come in, we'll have 27 people there. Yet on a Saturday night, when I have maybe almost double what I get on a Tuesday... and we've had a super busy day in sales... double… what we did on a Tuesday, I only have fifteen people there. It just doesn't make sense. Why is it? Because of favouritism and seniority (but there is no seniority)…. Yet, they're not hiring more people.

Commentary

Capitalists cultivate opportunism by pitting workers against each other. Case in point: Andy doesn’t like it when the dick boss plays favourites but, at the same time, he wants to remain in his favour. (That’s dialectics, by the way.) But is Andy right that the workers who get weekends off are the dick boss’ favourites? Or are these workers perhaps more combative? Would being more combative help Andy get weekends off? Individual combativeness can lead to individual gain. This is the battle of opportunism. The role of intermediate level worker-led organizations is to struggle against opportunism – and individualism is a form of opportunism.

Individualism is one of capitalism’s most insidious ideologies and, despite humans’ cooperative nature, we find ourselves struggling to overcome it. Andy demonstrated this tendency in numerous ways. He expressed his preference for calling an anonymous hotline over organizing collectively. He attributed his struggle with Walmart to an individual – the dick boss – instead of with Walmart as a (bourgeois) organization. Upon learning about the worker deaths at Rana Plaza, Andy blamed the shift boss.

Another manifestation of individualism is Andy’s belief that the other boss would help the workers if he witnessed the dick boss shitting on workers. This is a cop out. The other manager could easily take the workers complaints seriously if he wanted to help them. (In reality, all managers are responsible for upholding Walmart’s interests, not the workers’ interests, regardless of their managerial style.)

Individualism is pervasive. One way we could try to overcome it in Andy’s workplace is to struggle to collectivize weekends off so all workers get a regular turn. This way, they could get the coverage they need on the weekends, which is important because if workers continue to work understaffed on the weekends, Walmart will eventually use this as an opportunity to speed up the work pace on all days. This is why organizing is crucial.

Despite his struggle to overcome individualism and opportunism, Andy demonstrates some good class instincts: when he understood that Walmart has no reason to pay better wages given its position of power (dictatorship), when he made the choice not to defend Walmart when he learned about Rana Plaza, and when he and his co-workers chose not to use the anonymous hotline provided to them by Walmart.

Andy’s boss has been a dick for a long time, so why don’t Andy and his co-workers call the anonymous hotline? It’s because they know instinctively that nothing will change if they call, which is a strong class instinct. But the opposite is also true: the anonymous hotline is enough to make workers think they don’t have to organize, which goes against their interests, and is the real reason the anonymous hotline exists.

Not organizing in our own interests is a big problem we’re facing at this moment in history. When we’re not organized we can’t figure out together what to do about our problems. When we’re unhappy at our job, as many workers are, we persevere, we practice patience, we complain, or we quit. I’ve quit my share of jobs, and Colette, the worker we featured in last month’s interview, also resorted to quitting. All four of these tactics may help us individually and temporarily, but they do nothing to advance the interests of the working class.

Follow up questions

We discussed our interview with Andy at our current’s weekly meeting and we decided on four follow up questions we wanted to ask Andy, which he agreed to answer.

Rachael: You said you do not feel you could organize a group yourself, but would you go along if others were organizing?

Andy: That’s interesting. I think so.

Rachael: How many people would you need there to be organizing before you would join them?

Andy: That’s interesting. I don’t know, maybe five or ten.

Rachael: If others started organizing first, would you be interested in struggling to collectivize your weekends off?

Andy: Sure, but they would never agree to it.

Rachael: We would like to talk to any of the workers not doing their 50 boxes, especially if they tend to be combative. Would you help us make contact with these workers?

Andy: I don’t know. If I spearhead something like that, I could lose my job.
 
 
 
Capitalism is attacking all the dominated classes from all directions. We have common problems and capitalism is our common enemy. We can’t rely on politicians, business unions or NGOs to offer any way out. We have to fight for our own interests outside of these structures. We want to build an autonomous working class-led organization with different elements that are working together to fight capitalism. If you’re interested in building such an organization, get in touch: info@workersstrugglesudbury.com

Workers Struggle-Sudbury is edited by Rachael Charbonneau and John Newlands and is published monthly.