My last work day was long, even by stagehand standards, a six a.m. start with a load-out from one p.m. until … depends on who you asked. And this lengthy work call came at the end of ten early starts to ten long days. By about eight that night I was crispy. And that’s my excuse for missing an organizing opportunity.
Like I said, I was pretty fried when a longtime non-union Austin stagehand irritated me by hurrying up when it didn’t really make sense to hurry up. At the time, most of the carpenters were involved in a repetitive multi-person heavy lifting situation, so steady and safe would have been the right way to go even if we were all fresh and rested. But this guy kept moving faster than the group at a moment that required the group to move as one. I barked – I was the local department head, so it was my week to give f**k. He back-talked. I barked again. He figured out he needed to listen to me and eventually slowed down. We continued picking the heavy things up and putting them in their road case. End of incident.
Until that same stagehand came up to me later and introduced himself and apologized. Completely unexpected behavior. I certainly didn’t feel he had done anything that merited an actual apology. I had probably barked at a dozen people during that particular load-out. It’s kind of how we do. That’s what made his choice all the more remarkable.
I thanked him and assured him things were good between us. By then the call was mostly wrapping up so we chatted some. I learned he was a veteran of some of Austin’s more, shall we say, union unfriendly venues and stage labor providers, which explained his speed-up mindset. Then we went back to work and I didn’t really think about it anymore.
The next day it occurred to me that I had missed an organizing opportunity. I should have done more than just accept his apology and shake his hand and make small talk. I should have pointed out that our little mini-conflict lies at the very heart of why unions exist in the first place. We had each taken a side in a debate as old as capitalism: who controls the speed of the work? Or, to put it more fundamentally, should America’s ideals of democracy apply to workers while they’re doing their jobs?
Through his actions – namely, his go-go-go, work-as-fast-as-possible-all-the-time attitude – my new non-union acquaintance tacitly sides with management against democracy in the work place. His willingness to exhaust himself and put himself and his co-workers into dangerous situations, for whatever personal reasons, has the effect of ceding workplace power to the boss, in effect creating a little dictatorship.
On a union gig the stagehands are supposed to have a say in how fast a job happens (mostly because generations of workers have fought and died to win that right). And no, that does not mean we should all get out our milking stools. Union proud stagehands work as fast as the particulars of a situation allow. We work steady and we finish as quickly as possible without pushing past the speed of safety. That’s why fewer stagehands get hurt on union protected work calls.
These are some of things I should have said.
Of course, to be honest, I would have also needed to acknowledge that working union doesn’t fix everything. For example, there’s a national convention company my local is forced to work for (under a CBA we didn’t ratify that our international union shoved down our throats) where the contract completely sucks and where concepts like workplace democracy don’t apply. But that raises another democracy related question that won’t be answered here.
Because I just wanted to tell you about the organizing opportunity I missed. I just wanted to say that we should all be organizing all the time. And sometimes that simply means recognizing the chances we’re given and being willing to have the right conversations.