Direct Action and Escalation Tactics for the Workplace

So you’ve delivered demands to the boss. Now what? Labor journalist Kim Kelly walks you through some options to turn up the pressure and get results.

By: Kim Kelly
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Kim Kelly is a labor columnist at Teen Vogue and freelance contributor to all manner of other publications. Third generation union thug. Writer on labor, politics, working class resistance, antifascism, heavy metal, death culture, history, nonfiction, and things that go bump in the night. Kim wrote this piece as a contributor to Frank.

Congratulations! After a lot of hard work, tough conversations, and late night organizing calls, you and your coworkers have finally completed your first Frank campaign. You’ve identified a workplace issue you want to address, decided to launch a petition addressing those issues, built solidarity with your coworkers, collected your signatures, and sent the final result off to management, with a deadline for their expected response. Maybe you and your coworkers took a few well-deserved moments to celebrate, or unwind — organizing is hard work, and it can be scary to confront your employers about their own bad behavior. You’re feeling good, though, and happy you took this step. But then the deadline rolls around, and the boss still hasn’t sent you a response. Nothing has changed in your day-to-day at work, and your managers are acting as though the petition never happened. You’re feeling deflated, and a little nervous about what management might be planning behind closed doors. Now what?

Now, you and your coworkers apply pressure by escalating your campaign! You’ve cleared the first hurdle, but there’s plenty more work to do to reach your goal and force real change. Luckily, there are a wealth of tactics available for workers who need to give their bosses a little extra encouragement to address their demands. No matter what the specific situation is at your individual workplace, there are a number of options at your disposal. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach; that menu changes a bit depending on whether you’re in a union, or are at a different stage of organizing your workplace, and there are legal concerns to bear in mind depending on how militant you’re willing to go. You and your fellow organizers need to figure out what works best for you, and the level of confrontation that you’re comfortable with.

It’s unwise to go straight to the nuclear option — a strike or other kind of work stoppage — and use up all of your firepower in the first volley, because if it doesn’t work, your campaign will be left running on fumes. This is why it’s important to plan out a gradual (or not so gradual, depending on your timeline) escalation strategy, that starts small and builds up momentum until the boss has no choice but to listen. Think of it as following a curve, not a straight line. Forming a direct action committee to zero in on this aspect of your campaign will help the mission focused, and identifying leaders who are willing to be the public face of certain actions can help alleviate potential risks for more vulnerable coworkers. Recognize that it can be easier for people who have privilege in the workplace to push harder than those who have less access to institutional power, and be sure that your strategy centers the perspectives and opinions of those coworkers who are at the most risk of potential retaliation or harm.

Once you’ve settled on your tactics, figure out the best way to kick things off — and how up close and personal you’re planning to get. The COVID-19 crisis altered the ways that millions of people work, which means that organizers and activists have had to think on their feet in order to keep up with a perpetually evolving situation. The very landscape has shifted; some workers are back on the job or in the office as usual, while others can barely remember what an office even looks like. However, as strange and uncertain as things are right now, there are a few things that never seem to change… like bad bosses, and the efficacy of using collective power to combat their shortcomings and dirty tricks.

Inspired in part by the Industrial Workers of the World’s example of solidarity unionism, here are a few tried and true tactics that workers have been using for centuries to turn up the heat when bosses are dragging their feet, as well as some newer ideas tailored to fit campaigns that are being organized fully digitally, remotely, or while working from home. (Use these ideas as a jumping-off point to brainstorming your own, too!)

Identify pressure points

Understanding what makes management tick is going to be crucial to understanding how to make them sweat. Do they have a publicly progressive or social justice-oriented image? How much do they value optics? How much attention do they pay to social media? Which managers seem friendly to your cause, and which seem obviously opposed? Who makes the final call on whether or not your demands are met, and kind of public image do they have? Finding the answers to these questions will tell you who to target, and how to go about doing it.

For most companies, optics are very important, and utilizing tactics that chip away at their carefully-constructed brand can prove quite impactful. There’s a reason we see brands who have gotten dragged on Twitter scrambling to make quick changes; it’s not out of the goodness of their hearts, it’s to protect their investment. You can use that to your advantage, though. For example, if you work at a liberal nonprofit that treats its workers like garbage behind the scenes, exposing their hypocrisy to the press via social media campaigns or targeted leaks is an excellent way to get your demands out there in the public eye.

Go public

If your company is in an internet-savvy or public-facing industry, there are a lot of things you can do to boost your campaign and grab management’s attention via social media. Creating a Twitter and email account for your organizing group, publishing your petition to a site like Medium, and sharing it widely is one way to draw attention (especially if you’re able to pull in eyeballs from the media — more on that in a moment). If someone in your group is good with art and design, create a logo and shareable images illustrating your campaign to share on multiple social media platforms with a specific hashtag; ask your coworkers to share it on their own socials. Those pressure points you identified come into play here, too — if you’re okay with getting personal, tag upper management in your campaign tweets, tweet the petition at them, and encourage your followers to do the same.

Putting together a simple PR strategy is never a bad idea, either. Identifying sympathetic journalists and publications and sending them updates on the situation if a good way to get the campaign out there even further — and if you have any particularly egregious or juicy details to share about your bosses behavior, journalists love tips (and many will agree to keep your name anonymous to protect you from retaliation). Despite what your employer may say, it is perfectly legal for a worker to speak to the press about their working conditions, but if you use your own name, be careful not to say anything too disparaging to avoid possible legal repercussions from the company.

Show them you mean business during work hours

Many workplaces rely on email and internal chat programs like Slack to communicate, and nowadays, Zoom calls have replaced face-to-face meetings. Bring the struggle to work with you by using that snazzy logo your coworker created as your avatar on email or chat, or as your Zoom background; coordinate with your organizing group to have everyone change their photos at once, and present the boss with a visual reminder that the clock is still ticking.

If you are back at a physical workplace, you have even more options to force the issue and show the bosses how strong and committed your group is to this cause. Leave copies of your petition lying around the office and post flyers about the issue you’re fighting. Wear buttons or T-shirts with your logo and demands spelled out on the back. Organize a pizza party at work and have everyone go on break at the same time (bonus points if management can see you all having a great time without them).

Get spicy

The following options are a bit riskier, especially if you have not already joined or organized a union; there are certain protections afforded to concerted activity that unfortunately don’t apply to non-union workers, so think long and hard about potential consequences if you decide to engage in more confrontational tactics. Union members’ right to strike is legally protected, and employers cannot fire them for participating in a strike unless their contracts include a no-strike clause; non-union workers can be fired for striking, so we would recommend avoiding that tactic unless every other possible option has been exhausted; every worker understands the full risks; and everyone is on board anyway. (One more excellent reason to join a union!).

The greatest weapon that workers have is the withholding of our labor; that’s why work stoppages are such a big deal, and why bosses will go to incredible lengths in order to avoid (or break) them. In the spirit of escalation, though, remember that a full-scale strike isn’t the only option. You might want to try a work slow-down (in which workers intentionally work slowly and try to gum up normal business operations), working to rule (in which workers follow every single rule and regulation so exhaustively it’s impossible to make real progress) or coordinate a sick-out (in which workers all call out sick on a specific day, a tactic that has proven especially effective during the COVID-19 era). There are variations on these ideas, as well, and you don’t need to follow them to the letter — creativity is a virtue here when it comes to formulating plans that fit your specific industry or workplace.

March on the boss

It doesn’t get much more in-your-face than a classic march on the boss. It’s a simple idea: a group of workers directly confront their employer with issues or grievances, and demand an immediate resolution. This will commonly be a moment to present your petition, but can also be delivered verbally. The level of intensity you decide to employ during this confrontation depends on a great many factors, and erring on the side of polite-but-firm is probably the safest option for everyone involved, especially if you’re entering an enclosed space like an office or if your workplace employs security guards.

When bosses are forced to meet with the workers they employ on equal footing, they’re much more likely to crack. At the very least, a march on the boss ensures that a petition or grievance makes its way to its intended target — and that said target is informed of exactly what is needed, and what the consequences may be if they refuse to meet the terms. They cannot hide behind an assistant or an email address; they have to listen to you, and to recognize your humanity as well as the power you’ve built together. What happens next will be up to them, and to you — but even if you do not get the answer you want, you can use the experience as fuel to continue the battle, and to reevaluate your strategy. Remember that most petitions are met with resistance, at least at first, and that even legally protected actions can carry consequences; your job as an organizer is to ensure that your fellow workers are on board with whatever next steps you collectively decide to take. Solidarity is your best protection.

There is nothing that scares management more than seeing workers organizing together and standing in solidarity with one another against them. Every one of the tactics mentioned here is an excellent way to remind them that an injury to one is an injury to all — and that you’re not giving up without a fight. Good luck out there!

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