by John D/ Organizing Work
This article was originally published on Organizing Work, an exciting new website that serves as a platform for discussing workplace organizing with a major emphasis on the Industrial Workers of the World. If you have not checked out the website yet, do it today! In this article, John D talks about the six years he has spent working at a grocery coop in Saint Cloud, Minnesota and organizing there with the IWW.
I landed a job at the Good Earth Food Co-op in August 2012. I started in the deli department as a prep cook. This entailed doing the prep list for soups, hot bar entree, and dishes… lots of dishes! I mainly worked evening shifts at the time.
The co-op has roughly 24-30 workers.
A progressive aura… and disillusionment
We’re structured like most traditional consumer-owned cooperatives: Board of Directors, top-down leadership with a General Manager (that is also HR), department managers, buyers, and regular rank-and-file workers.
Co-ops tend to have this attractive, wonderful, and progressive aura about them, but I soon discovered after being there a few months that conditions were actually quite poor, and I began to experience a sense of disillusionment. Workers didn’t have a voice in decision-making, and managers micro-managed the hell out of workers even outside their own departments.
In the department where I worked there was rampant favoritism. The morning shift was heavily saturated with managers and shift supervisors. The clique among the morning crew gave them the ability to stand around, talk, leave half-made soup, and not clean up after themselves. The night crew would get scrutinized for “not getting enough done” despite us cleaning up after morning crew, doing all their dishes, and producing a lot of food for the cold case (wraps, sandwiches, side salads, etc).
At this time we had a department manager and a kitchen manager. Having multiple managers and a handful of supervisors made training new workers dreadful. I was shown four different ways to prep yellow onions for soup… and of course each person’s way was the “correct” one.
The morning crew was never held accountable for fucking up special orders or leaving the kitchen unsanitary / not food-safe, but heaven forbid the night crew didn’t spot a grain of rice on the floor. Our communication log in the kitchen became known as “the list of shame” because it specifically targeted night workers. When we would add important things that got missed in the morning our reminders either got crossed out or torn out completely.
Building a workplace committee
Brandon, Heith, Nicole, Richard, and I started meeting in early 2013 to discuss the issues we were facing at the co-op, sharing store news, and what we liked and disliked about our jobs. Originally, we met as an alternative to the watered-down department meetings; we sought a platform for our voices to be heard. This led to the formation of our first workers’ committee. Even though it was only five of us, we had representation in the deli, produce, and front end.
Our meetings were held at Brandon’s home. They were pretty informal. Slowly we invited other workers to join our meetings. We all sat in a circle and took turns going over issues, sharing information, etc. Workers didn’t seem daunted by participating in such a meeting, maybe due to their having a social kind of vibe. We wanted to avoid alienating our fellow workers.
We had one-on-ones and built a sense of solidarity and trust. We didn’t anticipate there would ever be a union at the co-op, but organizing a committee made sense.
Grievances and actions
Prior to joining the IWW, in 2013 we had successfully nullified a bullshit bra policy that required all female-identifying workers to wear bras while on the clock. We felt this was atrocious and that a co-op shouldn’t be policing women’s bodies. Susan, a newer member on our committee, wrote up a petition, got workers to sign it, and a small delegation marched on the boss to hand it in. This was one of our first successful public actions. It was the first time some of us workers realized we had power!
That same year we faced another shitty policy. There was an attempt to ban music in the kitchen. This was over a deli worker wanting total control over the music, where if you wanted a certain artist to be played he would put it on his iPod, and play it during the shift. When workers refused to do this, a feud broke out between him and one of the cooks. Ultimately, word kept getting back to the GM, and our music got taken away. To combat this, Brandon and I continued playing music regardless. We brought in our own speaker and played music, listened to podcasts, etc. The GM came into the kitchen a few times telling us we needed to turn it off. We refused. It helped us stay productive and eventually they realized we would keep playing music. So they gave up.
Another small victory was when workers organized to have community members and small farmers take our organic compost instead of the factory farmer we paid. This was really easy. Produce workers Richard and Scott led the initiative with the help of Katya. They met with the GM and provided information on community members and small, local farmers that would take our compost for free, and the co-op severed ties with the factory farmer. Even the most simple victories that are worker-led have an amazing impact on shifting power.
In early 2014, our longtime General Manager retired. We ended up getting some corporate GM, and shortly after he started, people were laid off. This was completely unexpected. At the previous “All-Staff Meeting,” a couple members from the Board of Directors had told us everything was going great at the co-op. Then boom! We lost several workers to lay-offs. They got rid of the seasoned veterans that made decent money and this increased our workloads. Shortly after these layoffs, one of our committee members, Brandon, was unjustly fired for something he didn’t do. Now everyone’s job felt up in the air. The rushed time frame made it extra hard for our committee to respond.
Formalizing the union: membership cards and trainings
Our committee began openly discussing bringing a union to the co-op. After reading up on the IWW, we felt solidarity unionism would best suit our course of organizing. We reached out to the Twin Cities IWW later that summer.
In October 2014, FWs Emmett, Travis, and Ben from the Twin Cities met with Heith, Crystal, Nicole, Scott, and me in Saint Cloud. They acquainted us with the union and we joined the IWW that night. It was time to dig in!
We had been experiencing abusive conditions since Crystal took over as manager of the deli department. She was extremely toxic. When our committee met, we discussed issues workers were having with her. The toxicity and bullying spread to other departments she aimed to undermine.
A couple of us were fortunate enough to attend the Organizer Training 101 in Duluth. This was in the spring of 2015. After practicing the role play scenarios, we utilized what we learned and applied that directly to our workplace. Our kitchen rendezvoused and planned a small walk-out during a staff meeting to show our dissatisfaction with Crystal. When she sat down, we all stood up, and left the room.
During this time we hired a new deli worker, Edwin. Edwin’s first week included Crystal taking him under her wing. She was trying to fortify her dwindling power. This didn’t go well for her after Edwin started working with union members. We found out he was being paid $1 below what he was supposed to be making per hour. Lauren, a cook, and myself marched into the GM’s office demanding Edwin be compensated at the starting wage everyone else was at. Edwin’s wage was corrected right away. Crystal lost another worker from her grip.
Matilda joined shortly after this. Originally Matilda was hired on to do custodial work. We got her a part-time closing gig in the deli. She was also not a fan of Crystal’s and joined the IWW around the same time as Edwin.
After a couple marches on the boss, and occupying management meetings, we threatened a strike if Crystal wasn’t removed. In July of 2015, our committee had picket signs ready as we waited in the deli seating area. The General Manager conceded to our demand. We had overthrown a fucking manager! This was huge!
Later that day we met to touch base with everyone involved in the action. We were all ecstatic.
The year 2015 was huge for our organizing. The momentum was in our favor after ousting a manager. So we continued on.
Our store’s buying standards were being curtailed by the GM. Co-op members and workers alike were noticing this shift. We decided to organize a membership committee that could take on improving the buying standards while our workers’ committee focused on our next target: the General Manager.
I became an at-large delegate during this time period and our union membership at the Co-op grew tremendously. We were still under the radar as a union, but had roughly half the shop as IWWs.
In late 2015, our committee added new members and coordinated a series of one-on-ones to get a better grasp of what everyone wanted. We all wanted the same thing: to get rid of the GM. We gathered worker testimonials documenting abuse experienced during his tenure to build a case against him. In early 2016, a worker/buyer delegation met with the Board of Directors “off-campus” (outside of the workplace). Worker testimonials were given and some workers threatened to quit if the GM wasn’t removed. The rest of us would go on strike if he wasn’t. It was clear that workers were unhappy, and with the threat of losing people, a picket, and really bad publicity, the board let him go. This was another huge victory for workers!
A first loss: fighting a termination using the boss’s playbook
2016 would prove to be another active year. We got a new GM, one who was hired from within, and some of our base was excited for her tenure. She had been involved in the worker/buyer delegation that had ousted the former GM. Some thought things would be different but we found ourselves organizing against similar conditions.
The new GM appointed a new manager to take over the deli. A feud developed between the new deli manager and one of our Wobbly bakers, Jessica. It reached a frothy level later that summer when Jessica was fired. We felt this firing was unjust, and that there was favoritism and just a lot of gross shit happening with power plays. Even one of our own union members helped get rid of Jessica by snitching to the bosses.
Our organizing committee faced a unique challenge where every worker in the deli was down to call a work stoppage, except the one who had helped with the termination. A second deli worker — who was in a relationship with that person — soon followed suit. They both said they would come in and work even if we called a work stoppage. So that was something.
Since two of our own deli workers refused to shut the kitchen down, we decided our next best course of action was to use one of the few useful policies in the employee handbook: the Grievance Committee. This is a committee of workers that can be struck to appeal write-ups and infractions. It was never used.
Names are drawn from a hat. The person grieving their reprimand (in this case termination) can excuse committee members if they feel like they have ties with management. Jessica was cool with everyone on the committee. I personally felt that one of the members — a buyer — was too friendly with the boss, but Jessica got along well with the individual and was fine with it. Only one committee member was a union member.
Grievance committee members go over the information documented: management’s side and the worker’s. One issue we ran into right away was Jessica’s lack of documentation. Management had documented a number of infractions on her part, including a “no call-no show” one day — she usually didn’t work that particular day and forgot she had agreed to cover a shift.
The grievance committee met for almost a month, and unearthed some stuff, but in the end our lack of documentation of management’s wrongdoings ruined Jessica’s chance of getting her job back.
Something we did gain from organizing around this injustice was the resignation of our deli manager (Jessica loved that). They were super stressed out from us organizing around Jessica’s termination. I think the manager thought it would be a quick thing that would get swept under the rug, but then we turned up the heat.
After they resigned, we formally declared the deli department to be worker-managed. No more bosses. No more hierarchy. We would run the deli collectively. We drafted a letter of intent, established how our structure would operate, and management formally acknowledged it.
Now the deli has a different process for discipline. We need to all be on board with correcting someone’s conduct or performance. When the GM has tried to write one of us up, or sometimes the entire department, we’re like “No… this is what’s going to happen.” We’ll tear up the write-up.
Later in 2016, Wobblies in the produce department took on the abusive work conditions they endured at the hands of the produce manager. This manager called produce workers “fucking morons” and also sexually harassed one of our bakers. Summer, Phillip, Bruce, Trent, and Tricia wrote a letter outlining the produce manager’s abuses, marched on the boss, and demanded a meeting. Originally, Summer and Phillip aspired to have a worker-run department just like the deli, but they realized they didn’t have the administrative experience or energy to fulfill the orders, make the department budget, etc. So they wrote up a list of expectations or guidelines for the manager to meet, and the GM signed off on it.
By the time 2017 hit, we had over 70% of the store as IWWs. Our committee felt it was time to go public with our union. We met with the General Manager in May, listed our demands, and were voluntarily recognized as the Good Earth Workers Union. Our demands were quite basic:
- Voluntary Recognition of the Good Earth Workers Union
- Automatic Owner Membership for Workers after 90-day probationary period
- Distribution of the Industrial Worker at the store
- Participate in the Boycott Driscoll’s campaign
All but one of these demands were met right away: the automatic co-op membership. We didn’t pursue it.
There weren’t any union-busting attempts at this time. Which is extremely rare. I believe the GM thought things would mellow out.
They didn’t. On July 3rd, workers found out we would not be receiving our 4th of July holiday pay. So we had several people meet with us in the kitchen, came up with a plan, and then marched on the boss. The boss was outside having a cigarette. We surrounded her, preventing any escape routes, and demanded each worker be given what they were owed for the holiday. She conceded. We received our pay.
Expansion…and a sudden collapse
2018 has been a struggle somewhat outside of the ordinary. Starting off the year, a new handful of workers were hired at the co-op. After successfully combating what was going to be her termination, we added Daisha to our collective. Additional workers were brought into the fold: Mary, Brent, and Drew from the kitchen, and Mason and Wren from the bakery. All five workers joined the IWW shortly after getting hired.
Beginning in the summer, we had issues with wage increases not being given. Drew, Phillip, and Bruce did a short sit-in over Drew not getting his raise. They sat in the outer deli seating area and colored in a radical coloring book while they waited for the GM. The GM conceded that Drew’s increase would be on the next paycheck.
A couple weeks later, in September, we lost half our deli collective over this issue. Wage increases were still a problem. Our committee met one night and decided on an action if our demand for wage increases wasn’t met. I was absent the following morning because of a dentist appointment and things did not go according to plan. One worker dominated the conversation, hurled insults at management, and completely uprooted the agreed-upon plan. Management was going to give three out of the five workers their overdue wage increases. Rather than calling a work stoppage, say for one day, and then meeting back with management to secure the other two workers’ raises, a bunch of workers just got up and left. They didn’t announce that they quit or anything. So there went half our deli collective.
This led to additional fallout. Produce workers were organizing to take over their department and manage it collectively like the deli. At the produce meeting where democratic control was going to be established, the GM came in and cried about half the deli walking out. This threw everything off. People were confused. The back offices started saying bullshit like “the union is ruining the co-op.”
One of our union members decided to be a bootlicker after this and started approaching workers individually about whether the Good Earth really needed a union, and kept going out of his way to report workers to management. This also led to an unsuccessful attempt at dissolving our worker-run deli. The GM tried hiring on a deli manager to take over the department. We resisted this and successfully fought them off. We will not go back to having a mini dictatorship in our department.
The fallout continues as we are rebuilding the committee, only to rebuild it again and again, having one-on-ones with new hires, and dealing with constant high turnover at the co-op.
We haven’t lacked this many union members in shop since mid-2015, before I could sign up workers. Our base is much smaller, but we still have total worker control over the deli — and bakery (it used to be part of the deli department and was spun off, but it remains worker-managed). We also have a presence in produce, bulk, and the front end. The high turnover is daunting, but we will keep moving the work along. There’s organizing to do!
Our Workers’ Union has also taken on various solidarity campaigns:
We have successfully supported two Boycott Driscoll’s Campaigns. The first one was in 2015 to support FUJ’s efforts to unionize 400 farmworkers. Then we went public about supporting SINDJA and the need to honor the boycott for farmworkers in San Quintin, Mexico.
Solidarity with Standing Rock
Workers organized a handful of donation drives for Standing Rock. We collected donations at the Co-op. These drives were successful at getting workers and community members connected with the struggle. One of our board members let the Workers Union borrow his truck to haul everything. The Co-op was one of the main drop off sites for Standing Rock donations in Central MN
Solidarity with Camp Makwa
Good Earth Workers Union organized a series of donation drives for Camp Makwa. We also had the Co-op Facebook page post about these solidarity campaigns, which was amazing because they had our Good Earth Workers Union logo on them.
SWOP Behind Bars Book Drive
Workers organized a book drive for SWOP Behind Bars. The Co-op was one of the main drop off sites.
Picket Line Support
Good Earth Workers Union members provided soup and bread for a picket line outside Gold n Plump corporate offices in Saint Cloud. This was in solidarity with poultry workers organizing. We’ve also sent a union delegation to support a couple Super America gas station workers picketing for safer work conditions.
These solidarity efforts have been posted around the co-op and some of them also made them it onto the co-op’s Facebook page. It seems small, but having that much influence and democratic control over posting union-related news and information is important.
Lessons learned and advice for other organizers
Never underestimate the bosses, even when you’ve had as many successful gains as our campaign. It doesn’t give you a bulletproof vest against retaliation. It’s also important to realize that your gains don’t establish permanent worker power. Keep building your campaign and shop floor presence.
I would like to see more of our Good Earth Workers Union membership attend Organizer Training 101s. This could’ve helped navigate that “walk-out” in a better direction.
Never let one person dominate workplace actions. Even if it goes well, building each worker into an organizer becomes less likely. I feel like this is something I’ve been guilty of over the course of the Good Earth Workers Union campaign. I’m at just about every major action. When I was absent from the meeting that resulted in the walk-out, some union members asked, “where’s John?” as though I’m needed for an action to be successful. It’s that cliché superhero shit we all hear about in workplace organizing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about with the high turnover. I’m sure some of those workers won’t organize at their other jobs.
Even fellow workers can fall prey to the “perks” of being a running dog for the bosses. We’ve had this happen a few times over the course of our campaign. I guess I would be interested to see what led these individuals to become disillusioned with the union or wanting it to go away. Especially considering most had roles in successfully ousting managers. Having a conflict-resolution committee would have been helpful at possibly preventing some of this from happening.
Despite giving the solidarity union pitch and having workers experience it, some may still treat organizing as a representative thing, where they don’t want to get involved in actions or contribute, but will call on you to fight their battles as if we’re the SEIU or some other service union. The campaign has always been deli-heavy. Everyone comes to the deli when they have issues… which is cool, but then when it comes down to different actions (even outside the department) it’s almost always majority deli workers throwing down. Getting those other workers to an Organizer Training 101 is something I’d like to see. I think the role play scenarios would help them gain confidence in their ability to directly effect change in the workplace!
Also, don’t feel rushed to go public. We had roughly 4 years of organizing under the radar (3 as IWWs) before going public with our union. Build your committee and have as many one-on-ones as possible with everyone.
Workplace organizing is a roller-coaster so keeping that revolutionary flame lit in your heart is crucial!