1. a disruption of operations in which workers intentionally do the precise bare minimum — down to the “rule”
“Work-to-rule is not walking away from a fight, but a different way to fight.” — Labor activist Jerry Tucker
Is work-to-rule the same as “quiet quitting”?
Yes and no. Quiet quitting entered the discourse this year as a successor to the Great Resignation, and both phrases respond to a deep anxiety that a strong labor market is actually allowing workers to — gasp — get paid more and refuse uncompensated work.
But work-to-rule is a deliberate strategy unions have employed for decades to draw attention to grievances from protesting workers. Where strikes and walkouts can be risky (or unlawful), work-to-rule is theoretically unpunishable — because workers simply do exactly what they’re paid for.
+ How can I work-to-rule at my job?
Much like declaring bankruptcy, it doesn’t work if you just shout out your intentions.
It’s best undertaken as part of an organizing campaign to increase leverage against your boss. Are you expected to show up 20 minutes early to do unpaid prep? Your mornings are now for coffee and contemplation. Have unfinished work you usually take home? Get ready for an evening of Netflix and chill. Pesky paperwork getting you down? Start dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s.
+ Is it effective?
Like any job action, there’s no guarantee. But work-to-rule has been deployed successfully across industries throughout the decades, especially when traditional strikes aren’t an option.
In 1938, French railway workers barred from striking instead seized on a law requiring train engineers to consult crew members if there was any doubt about a bridge’s safety. Crew members began scrutinizing every bridge, incurring massive train delays and therefore gaining negotiating power. In the 1980s, when United Auto Workers realized during contract negotiations that manufacturers were trying to provoke workers into striking — to permanently replace them with scabs — the union turned to work-to-rule, throwing production into chaos and winning a 36% wage bump over three years at one plant.
Teachers, including in Oakland, Calif., haverepeatedlyused work-to-rule to shine a light on the amount of unpaid labor required to keep schools running in an era of privatization and disinvestment.
There’s nothing wrong with setting better boundaries at work and maybe even making a TikTok about it. But if you really want to change your workplace (to paraphrase an old labor adage): Don’t quiet quit — organize.
Jordan Romero, 28, was struck by a vehicle and died in a trench at a Boston construction site in February 2021. Romero was the father of two young children. They will grow up without him.
Robert Woods, 42, was murdered in 2018 during a robbery at the St. Louis Dollar General store where he worked, leaving behind a grieving daughter. Despite multiple violent incidents at its stores, Dollar General has not taken measures to adequately address security concerns.
Janine Denise Johnson Williams, 50, was one of nine workers who died this past December when a tornado struck Mayfield Consumer Products in Kentucky. She is survived by her husband, four children and 17 grandchildren. Five workers at the Mayfield plant say they asked to leave after severe weather alerts but were told to stay or risk being fired.
These three preventable deaths are just a few of those that took place at workplaces recognized as this year’s Dirty Dozen unsafe employers by our organization, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Each year we release this list to call attention to egregious actions by companies who put workers and communities at risk.
You may ask: can employers really prevent a traffic accident, a shooting or a death from a tornado? The answer is yes, yes and yes.
Any competent contractor must safely manage traffic at a construction site. Retail stores have a responsibility to protect employees and customers with safe staffing, security systems and other measures. In an era of climate change, factories and warehouses must have emergency procedures in place for severe weather — and forcing workers to stay on the job can have terrible consequences.
More than 4,700 U.S. workers died from workplace trauma in 2020, the latest year for which data is available. And as many as 95,000 U.S. workers die each year from long-term exposure to toxic hazards including silica and asbestos.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought new risks to many workplaces, leading to a huge loss of life. One insurance company reports a 40 percent increase in deaths of working age Americans, from ages 18 to 64, since the pandemic began.
Indigenous, Black and Latinx people and Pacific Islanders are dying from COVID-19 at far greater rates than white people and Asian Americans. Disparities in access to health care and other resources can mean the difference between life and death.
When workers organize, U.S. employers often respond with brute force, firing a few so the rest are afraid to speak up. The nation’s 11 million undocumented workers are especially vulnerable, due to fears that their immigration status will be used against them.
But in today’s labor market, where employers are dealing with a shortage of workers, the old tricks aren’t working. Workers are standing up to intimidation with bold campaigns at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Dollar General. Stories from these workplaces and others can be found on workedup.us, a new National COSH platform for workers who are joining together to turn bad jobs into good jobs and good jobs into better ones.
We might hope that unsafe employers would take steps on their own to reduce risks and eliminate hazards. But hope is not a plan. Organizing with coworkers is a much better bet.
Over the past few years, a small but highly-visible band of Republicans have publicly declared their intention to transform the GOP into a “worker’s party.” Sens. Marco Rubio (R‑Fla.), Josh Hawley (R‑MO), Ted Cruz (R‑Tex.) and Tom Cotton (R‑AR) have all embraced versions of this vision, part of a high-brow attempt to divorce the party from its sole adherence to pro-business conservatism.
On election night 2020, Hawley — who was elected to the Senate in 2018 after running a relatively conventional Republican campaign—declared that the GOP was “a working class party now. That’s the future.” Cruz and Cotton have since echoed Hawley’s populist rhetoric, the former blasting Democrats as “the party of the rich” while claiming for Republicans the mantle of “the party of the working class.”
There has been some movement on the legislative side, too. Early last year, Cotton and Sen. Mitt Romney (R‑UT) introduced legislation to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour. Hawley’s personal crusade against Big Tech — which attracted bipartisan support before he refused to certify the 2020 presidential election and supported the insurrectionist crowd outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — is, on its face, anti-monopolistic.
But in reality, a few policy gestures aside, their rhetoric hasn’t lived up to the hype. In recent weeks, as American workers have won a string of significant victories — organizing Starbucks coffee shops across the country and unionizing an Amazon warehouse for the first time in the company’s history — this group of supposedly “pro-worker” Republicans have been handed a prime opportunity to speak out in support of these organizing efforts. Instead, they’ve been silent.
This reticence is particularly notable from Rubio, who already supported one Amazon union drive. Last year, when workers and organizers in Bessemer, Alabama, tried unsuccessfully to form a union at a local facility, Rubio penned an op-ed in USA Today effectively endorsing the efforts, writing that Amazon’s corporate behavior was “uniquely malicious” — a notable stand for someone who once warned that unions threatened to “destroy industries their workers are in.” But when it comes to the successful campaign at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse in New York, Rubio has kept mum.
The iconic American coffee chain, Starbucks, employs hundreds of thousands of people in nearly 9,000 cafés nationwide. And yet, the news that a handful of Starbucks employees at one café in Buffalo, New York, recently voted to join Workers United—an affiliate of SEIU—made headlines nationally. The New York Times called it a “big symbolic win for labor,” while the Washington Post hailed it as a “watershed union vote.” Social media feeds were replete with joyous posts celebrating the vote. The café, located on Elmwood Avenue, was the only one out of three union-voting Starbucks locations in Buffalo that successfully chose to unionize.
“It is significant,” says Cedric de Leon of the Starbucks union vote. De Leon is the director of the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is an associate professor of sociology, and he is the author of several books about labor organizing in the U.S. “The employer knows it and the workers know that establishing a beachhead in one of the largest corporations, and really an iconic brand in the U.S. hospitality market, is a major accomplishment.”
Ahead of ballots being cast, Starbucks tried to delay the vote and even stacked the Buffalo cafés with new staff to try to dilute “yes” votes. It flew in external managers to closely watch workers in what was seen as brazen intimidation. The company, which has long resisted union activity, brought its former Chief Executive Howard Schultz to Buffalo to discourage workers from unionizing, even shutting down its cafés during his Saturday visit so they could attend what was essentially a captive-audience address.
Given that Starbucks would go to such lengths to stop just a handful of stores from joining a union, it’s no surprise that it took 50 years after its founding for a single café to unionize. And it’s no wonder that commentators are shocked by what is a potentially groundbreaking event.
During his address, Schultz, who remains Starbucks’ largest shareholder, reportedly spoke of the company’s health insurance benefits and tuition assistance as reasons why a union was unnecessary. Believing he knows what is best for workers, Schultz had written in his first memoir, “I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.”
Yet there is evidence that Starbucks workers could indeed use the collective bargaining power that a union confers. A study by Unite Here of thousands of Starbucks employees working at airport locations found a racial pay gap with Black workers earning $1.85 less per hour than their white counterparts. Nearly one in five of those workers reported not having enough money to purchase food.
And in 2020, in the midst of the national uprisings for racial justice, Starbucks issued a policy prohibiting workers from wearing pins or clothing in support of Black Lives Matter. The company backpedaled after a public uproar.
Like Amazon and Walmart, Starbucks has often retaliated against those workers seeking to organize a union. Starbucks barista Gabriel Ocasio Mejias in Orlando, Florida, was fired after attempting to convince his colleagues to join Unite Here.
The pandemic was particularly hard on workers as online to-go orders sharply spiked. A shift supervisor in New York who wished to remain anonymous told the Guardian, “They want us to just be these robots that move fast, we’re just little drones to them that just need to pump out as many lattes as we can in a half-hour.”
When asked to respond to the shift supervisor’s complaint, a Starbucks spokesperson responded with a statement that could only have been written by a public relations expert. “Our 200,000 partners across the US are the best people in the business, and their experiences are key to helping us make Starbucks a meaningful and inspiring place to work,” said the spokesperson. “We offer a world-class benefits program for all part- and full-time partners and continued support for partners during Covid-19 to care for themselves and their families, and we continue to have an industry-leading retention rate.”
It’s true that the company refers to its employees as “partners,” as if using a term that sounds powerful is enough to eclipse the lack of worker power. But the use of the term has a downside as workers are challenging Starbucks to live up to what “partner” implies.
One of the Buffalo Starbucks workers who voted to unionize, Michelle Eisen, said in a statement, “This win is the first step in changing what it means to be a partner at Starbucks, and what it means to work in the service industry more broadly.” She added, “With a union, we now have the ability to negotiate a contract that holds Starbucks accountable to be the company we know it can be, and gives us a real voice in our workplace.” And it’s precisely that ability that Starbucks and Schultz are terrified of.
“When workers get the notion that this giant boss who seemed like a colossus a year ago can be beaten, when they see that, then they begin to organize,” says De Leon. Already two Starbucks stores in Boston, upon seeing the success of the Buffalo café, signed up for union elections. Those workers, once more challenging Starbucks to live up to the term “partners,” issued a statement saying, “We believe that there can be no true partnership without power-sharing and accountability.”
Workers at a store in Mesa, Arizona, are similarly inspired by the victory in Buffalo and filed a petition for a union election. One worker told the Arizona Republic, “Our eyes were on Buffalo.”
Increasingly, workers appear to be seeing through the anti-union propaganda of their corporate employers. Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said of the pro-union activity in Mesa, “We shouldn’t have a third party in between us when it comes to working together to develop the best experience that our partners can have.” But a Buffalo Starbucks worker serving as a union liaison for Mesa workers countered, “our union is going to be made up of baristas and shift supervisors who make up Starbucks. That’s not a third party.”
The general public also seems to be growing more supportive of union efforts, as a worker at the Buffalo store reported that more people were coming to the café, excited by the news of the union vote, and tipping more generously than usual. A Gallup poll in September found the highest public support for unions since 1965, with a whopping 68 percent of respondents supporting the right to collective bargaining. De Leon says, “So many successful organizing campaigns are buttressed by community support.”
The eyes of those union supporters among us now ought to be on Starbucks management as the question remains whether or not the company will negotiate a contract in good faith. Terri Gerstein writing in the American Prospect warned that “even in Buffalo, the battle is far from over,” and that “there are too many ways employers can try to destroy a union even after an election.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who had declared his solidarity with the Buffalo workers, demanded after news emerged of the vote that “The company should stop pouring money into the fight against the union and negotiate a fair contract now.”
With election season coming up, we’re re-launching our Working People series “Working-Class Politics,” where we talk to working-class people running for elected office at all levels—in their unions, in local, state, and national government, etc.—as well as candidates fighting with and for the working class. In the latest installment of this ongoing series, we talk to Paul Prescod (aka “Labor Paul”), a socialist, high school teacher, and member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Listeners may know Prescod as the co-host of The Jacobin Show, but he is now running for Pennsylvania State Senate in its 8th district, pledging to make organizing around working-class issues and legislating universal programs his top priorities. We talk to Prescod about the importance of building working-class coalitions, earning the trust of organized labor, and what it will take to serve the needs of working people in his district.
Today marks the second anniversary of Rumble with Michael Moore. Thank you for participating in and supporting my podcast! We’ve done 224 episodes and have had over 31 million downloads!
On today’s Rumble, with the end of the year approaching & reports about inflation dominating the nightly news, Americans everywhere are anxious about what this means for them. Former US Secretary of Labor and progressive activist Robert Reich, however, thinks this is a major misdiagnosis: the problem isn’t inflation, but a lack of competition to stop big, monolithic corporations from jacking up prices. Robert joined me on the show today to talk about who is really responsible for your gas and milk prices skyrocketing, and why it’s more important than ever for the government to intervene in a moment when they’re trying to pull back. Plus, we discuss the rising labor movements in America and whether the “labor shortage” the media & big companies keep alleging is actually a general strike of workers across the country.
I hope you’ll give this a listen and share with friends and family.
Trebr Lenich always called his mother before his drive home from overnight shifts at Mine No. 1, operated by Hamilton County Coal in Hamilton County, Ill. The call she answered the morning of Aug. 14, 2017, worried her.
“He said, ‘Mom, I am just so exhausted, so wore out,’ ” Teresa Lenich says.
Her son routinely worked long hours on consecutive days. That day, he never made it home.
Coworkers following Trebr said his driving was erratic and suspected he was falling asleep, Teresa says. Heading back to the West Frankfort home he shared with his parents, girlfriend and baby daughter, Trebr drove into a ditch and hit an embankment. According to the sheriff’s report, his engine then caught fire.
Like many young miners, Trebr was employed through a contracting company that provides temporary workers for mines with no promise that they’ll be hired on permanently.
This staffing structure — and the disappearance of labor unions from Illinois mines — has made work less safe and more grueling for miners, according to advocates and multiple studies. Without job security, temporary workers are reluctant to complain about potentially unsafe conditions (including long work hours) and to report accidents. And because temporary workers may have inadequate experience in a particular mine, they might not understand that mine’s specific risks.
In July, a group of cell tower technicians who work for an AT&T contractor in the Philadelphia area approached the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) for help unionizing. The technicians’ wages were stagnant, they didn’t receive sick days, and had been urinating and defecating in trash bags and water bottles because their contractor wouldn’t provide port-a-potties.
The IBEW never responded to the technicians—so they took a chance on a new startup for union organizing called Unit, which launched in December 2020 with $1.4 million in funding from various venture capital firms. Unit is “a platform that helps you and your coworkers form a labor union” by offering a set of tools, including a web app and a team of advisors that help clients facilitate and expedite the unionization process. It is designed to help with everything from inviting coworkers to join and sign union authorization cards, certifying the union, and negotiating a union contract with the aid of lawyers, accountants, and union organizers. Notably, it allows workers to do this as an independent union, without the aid of an established or nationally recognized union.
The AT&T technicians aren’t far along in the unionization process, but one of the lead worker organizers says Unit has been a big help so far. “It’s been great,” the technician told Motherboard. “They helped me set up meetings with workers to explain the unionization process, provided legal advice, and gave us access to digital union authorization cards. You can send a text and the person follows the link, and they sign the digital card. It’s so easy.”
The technician told Motherboard that the main benefit of joining Unit is that the dues are less than many national unions charge. “Unit only takes 0.8 percent of your income. Most unions take a lot more,” he said.
Workers begin paying fees to Unit after they ratify their first contract, which often includes pay increases that are larger than union dues.