There’s an old saying in the labor movement that “the boss is the best organizer.” That is, nothing will unite a workforce faster than a bad boss; nothing will create class consciousness faster than an abusive manager at the helm.
And what is Donald Trump but the worst possible boss? After all, the President became a household name by firing people on national TV.
“Bad bosses and totalitarians create spaces between people. Donald Trump is probably both,” Indiana organizer Tom Lewandowski told me in 2016, before Trump even took office. “It is no different than in a workplace,” he said about Trump’s divide and conquer strategy. In response, Lewandowski said, “we have to diminish the spaces between people. We have to have people understand each other and work together.”
So perhaps it should be no surprise that under Trump groups of workers who would previously have been unlikely to feel that shop-floor militancy have taken to workplace organizing, realizing that the power they have is rooted in their ability to refuse to work.
The latest group to do so is Walmart white-collar employees, angered by the company’s continuing gun sales after yet another shooting in one of its stores. Workers in e-commerce divisions based in California, Oregon, and New York walked off the job last week, and started a petition calling on Walmart executives to stop selling firearms.
“If I didn’t do something today, I would be a party to making money off weapon sales,” one of the organizers told reporters.
The action follows on the heels of past successes of retail employees at the company, organized with OUR Walmart, as well as on the actions of workers elsewhere who have used their power on the job to demand political change.
In the spring of 2017, I spoke with IBM programmers who had begun a petition to their employer to refuse to work with the Trump Administration. The CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, had praised Trump in a public letter, and employees were concerned that the company—which, employees noted, has a history of collaborating with racist regimes from Nazi Germany to apartheid South Africa—would put them to work on technology to aid with deportations or his Muslim ban. The workers held a public action to go with their petition.
The sense that workers could band together to change company policy, and perhaps even influence government policy, may have come from the sense of desperation mingled with outrage that many felt after Trump’s election. That moment of shock spurred many to look at their own relatively privileged lives and at other workers who had taken action with much more at stake in recent years.
What began as a gesture of solidarity extended to migrants, Muslims, and anyone else who might find themselves on the wrong side of the administration, led many to connect the dots to their own lives and realize that the workplace could be both a place of danger and a place of power.
“It feels like tech workers have in the past been very privileged in a way,” IBM worker Sesha Baratham told me in 2017. “They have comparatively well-paid jobs and more security than other areas, but I think even tech workers now are really feeling the crunch of the economy and uncertainty about their own futures and livelihoods.”
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Baratham, too, felt less certain “whether the company really has my interests in mind at all in whatever they do. My sense is that they don’t.”
Google workers’ walkout against sexual harassment last November showed this burgeoning consciousness, with workers moving from not wanting to be complicit with something that harms others to understanding the ways that their companies’ fixation on the bottom line puts them, too, in danger.
The wave of outrage and action against sexual harassment that came under Trump was yet another sign that working people at all income levels saw the similarities between the President’s behavior and their own employers.
Bosses, after all, are governments in miniature, as Elizabeth Anderson wrote in Private Government, and they often exert far more control over us than the state actually does. And, of course, sometimes employers literally bring down the arm of the state on their employees.
Questions arose after a massive workplace raid hit food processing plants in Mississippi that happened to have recent complaints filed by their workers over sex, national origin, and race discrimination.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a release from August 2018, alleged that supervisors at Koch Foods “touched and/or made sexually suggestive comments to female Hispanic employees, hit Hispanic employees and charged many of them money for normal everyday work activities.” Some workers also complained of retaliation from the company when they raised concerns.
Koch Foods, a company with no relation to the multinational Koch Industries, agreed to pay a $3.75 million settlement.
The workers at Koch and other companies were rounded up and processed for deportation; meanwhile, as The Washington Post reported, few of the employers whose facilities have been raided have been charged.
Trump has brought the workplace raid back in dramatic fashion after the Obama Administration had largely halted the practice. Such raids are designed to keep workers compliant under the threat not only of firing but of ICE charging in and dragging them off in cuffs for the crime of having a job.
These raids are precisely what the IBM and Google workers wanted to resist. Their workplace organizing was designed to support the organizing of workers at plants like Koch Foods, where many workers were members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
As working people at all levels sought for handholds to apply leverage, they have begun to understand themselves as workers whose interests, after all, are not that different whether they pack chickens in Mississippi or sell Walmart products in California or program for IBM in Atlanta. And Donald Trump is no different than any other bad boss—defeating Trumpism will take collective power.