Fired for Organizing at Work: Some Lessons

Last summer, I started working at an after-school program but was fired after only six months. Because I was not fired ‘for cause’ (failure to meet expectations, inappropriate behavior, etc.), – which is possible because there is no union contract – I was eligible for unemployment benefits. But because there’s no union contract, they could fire me without any cause. The director later confirmed to a co-worker that I was fired for participating in discussions about her management policies.

Surprise, surprise! I got in trouble for organizing. I figured I’d send out a little report on some of my organizing efforts recently so that perhaps others can learn from my experiences as well.

The job was with an arts and academic support program for high school students in a densely populated, mostly low income African American and African immigrant neighborhood, serving approximately 200 youth per year. Staff includes mostly ‘teaching artists’ and tutors (about 12 of each.) I was the only social worker involved. There are also about 5 managerial staff.

I should mention that there’re a lot of problems with the larger agency, including very conservative corporate politics (big advocate for conservative politicians, no structural accountability to community, very anti-union, board of directors are all corporate execs., etc.) and huge reliance on low-wage part-time workers; half the staff make between $10-20 per hour with no benefits. Other staff comes from AmeriCorps workers who get $19,000 a year with no benefits. But for this I am just focusing on our little struggle at my program.

High turnover, high workload, and threatening work environment

There is a high amount of staff turn-over. Out of around 30 workers, roughly half of the positions had turned over in the 6 months I was there – and among these, there was about an even split between those who had quit and firings. Most of this turnover was over the summer, and by September many staff were regularly voicing concerns regarding the number of people leaving / being fired and the rationale for it all. There were no explanations given to other staff besides “the people who aren’t with us anymore were not team players”. This created a climate of fear among the remaining staff.

The workload was designed to be very heavy. Staff are routinely assigned work that cannot reasonably be completed within their scheduled part-time work hours; but because we’re working with people, and not widgets, staff routinely stay late to complete work with the youth (such as editing college essays, etc.) and are rarely paid for that time. Some staff reported hearing managers discuss the need to “squeeze as much work out of them as possible.” This was also exacerbated by the turnover, which forced many to do two jobs.

As in many social service agencies, managers at this program had little (or no) experience coordinating the work of others, even from an efficiency perspective. Though each front-line staff member had a supervisor, other managers would routinely walk around the program and assign additional work or re-arrange existing work assignments for staff without consulting intermediary supervisors. Of course most staff would not say ‘no’ to the director (for fear of being labeled ‘not a team player’), and so added even more to already heavy work loads.

A final area of concern among staff was the ‘culture’ or style of management. The basic frustration was that managers would routinely yell, demean, threaten or curse at staff, whether in private meetings or in group meetings. This is apparently the same thing that happens higher up in the larger agency as well (including the executive director and other senior managers). Most staff felt that going to managers (especially the director) with concerns or problems would result in being blamed for the problem and yelled at. Several of us had even tried to address the issues above with the managers, but the director told us “I don’t want to hear it. … No one shows initiative, no one is motivated. I’m the one who does everything here!” Needless to say, the issues were not addressed.

So, what the hell happened?

Everything I’ve mentioned was pretty frustrating, and made going to work a drag, but I also knew about or expected a lot of this when i took the job. I was not planning to do anything about these issues initially – in other words, I wasn’t planning on organizing in my workplace, largely because it didn’t seem like a strategic place to do that for a number of reasons. Even when the majority of staff had expressed frustration with these main concerns publicly and privately, and it seemed that there was a consensus emerging about, I still didn’t try to do anything.

Finally, it became clear that there was a group of co-workers who, though small, wanted to do something together to address the common problems; at that point I felt a responsibility to support my co-workers around these issues, which I felt are genuinely detrimental to the quality of programming we offer to the youth (in addition to being unfair to staff.) About five of us began meeting to discuss what could be done.

After about two months of discussion, one of my co-workers drafted a letter to the director explaining the concerns and recommending specific policy changes to address them, such as clarifying work assignment protocol and banning abusive language).

After an initial, very combative first draft, we decided to write a second draft in more cordial and cooperative language, focusing on how these issues impact the youth. I wrote this second draft based on the consensus of the other folks involved.

Two co-workers started expressing some hesitation about delivering it immediately, so we decided to just sit on this for a month or so, and talk with co-workers more before doing anything else. I believe that this second draft was forwarded to the director around the beginning of December.

One day in mid-December, I was instructed to go to the director immediately upon arriving at work, and did so. She told me, “today will be your last day of employment here. I have packed up your office already; your things are in that box. I will need your keys and will then escort you out of the building”. When asked for a justification, i was told that it “wasn’t working out”. That was it. no warning, no discussion, no preparation / mediation.

Wait, but can they really do that?

It is usually against the law to retaliate in any way against workers for engaging in any collective efforts to address hours, wages, or other ‘working conditions’ (which include things like work assignment and treatment of workers). This is federal labor law under the National Labor Relations Act. In cases like mine it is often difficult to prove that I was fired specifically due to the letter and participating in such discussions; after all, the boss avoided saying as much when I was fired.

However, she has since confirmed to other workers that this was in fact the reason (managers have been going around threatening my former co-workers for lack of ‘loyalty’ to the director, which is also illegal… if you can prove it). So, there is an option of filing a case with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which governs, investigates and enforces these laws. We might even win, but it is unlikely that I’d get my job back, and also the danger that it could back-fire in my job search.

A few of my co-workers wanted to continue to press for the changes that we originally agreed on, but most have been scared into submission. Initial reports were that immediately after firing me, the director apologized to a few staff, and seemed to address some of the requests in the letter – I guess in an effort to appease the remaining staff who were frustrated without having to acknowledge that it was due to them challenging her. Also, some of the youth started organizing a petition to get me re-instated, but at this point i don’t think these efforts or those of the other staff have gone anywhere. so I hung out on unemployment, looking for a new job.

Learning from the experience

Here are two things I learned from this experience about organizing at work:

  1. Though there was a majority of staff in support of the recommended changes, there was only a small minority who had agreed to pursue them to the point of taking risks. And in the end, about half of them backed off of the issues or supporting me once I got fired, despite saying that they would do so. So, basically, we didn’t have a large enough or strong enough core group.
  2. Though I didn’t rush to initiate the organizing, once involved I played a leading role. In retrospect, it would have been safer for me to focus on supporting the initiative of my co-workers, rather than making suggestions about how to move forward. Around the beginning of December, two of my co-workers started dragging their feet slightly: one had decided to quit, and the other had been told that he would be promoted soon.

    But because we had already told others that we’d do something, I felt a responsibility to move forward, which is why I volunteered to draft the second version of the letter. In retrospect, it was not my responsibility to carry this effort forward. It was our collective responsibility, and if we were not going to collectively do it, it shouldn’t happen. So, when our small group of people willing to take risks got smaller, we should have slowed down then and focused on building support, rather than push ahead with an even smaller group.