At Work #2: ‘Centimetres’ by Anxious Fast Food Worker

I hate the hot-plate. I hate the hot-plate.

It’s shoved far against the wall for no other reason than to ‘look neat.’ This means that when you’re serving over it for say, 4 hours, you’re constantly bending forward and extending your arms way too far. The result is a bad back, and RSI.

I used to drag it forward when on shift, not thinking anything of it because it’s bloody common sense. It’s too far > I can’t reach it to do my job > I pull it forward.

One time my boss came on shift when it was forward and she immediately pushed it back. ‘Hang on a minute, I can’t have it like that, it hurts my back.’ She replied ‘you’ve never said anything about it before, don’t worry about it.’ Oh cool, clearly the worry causes the pain. Silly me. I press her on it and she says ‘I don’t care, this is my shop, I do what I want.’ So much for health and safety.

The following weeks I pull the hotplate forward every time I’m working with it. I’m normally on with the deputy manager, who never had an issue with the positioning of the plate before the incident with the boss. Now however, he takes it upon himself to keep it at the wall with religious zeal. He does a great Dr Jackal Mr Hyde, flipping between banalities like ‘mmm, Right hits the spot, tea’ to snarling ‘I DON’T WANT THAT HOTPLATE MOVED’ and slamming it back. It’s unpleasant, but I keep moving it. Sometimes when he goes round the corner, I do it inch by inch, just to mess with him, then play dumb when he starts shouting. Other times, I just pull it straight back when he pushes it, it’s almost comical.

A few weeks into this tug of war, things start picking up organising wise. A colleague who’s organising with me starts pulling it forward, out of solidarity, as he rarely has to work with it himself. We start to gain traction. A while later I find that another colleague is doing it because she enjoys annoying the boss. Other workers comment that it’s better when it’s forward.

One day I come on shift and the tray is (slightly) forward. The deputy manager has changed tone, and tries to be conciliatory ‘I don’t mind it being a bit forward, but not too much.’ Clearly he understands the needs of my back better than me. We keep moving it forward anyway though.

A few weeks later and now it’s pretty much a norm that the tray is forwards, at least when I’m on.

It’s hardly dramatic, but it’s a victory, and for me quite a major one for a few reasons.

Firstly, I think it was a nice illustration of why solidarity unionism is necessary – health and safety and legal responsibilities of the boss were dismissed by her straight off, so shop floor action was the only practical solution.

Secondly, it got my colleagues on board and for interesting different reasons. One out of solidarity (Know The Union), others out of seeing action taking effect (See The Union) and one for appreciating people standing up for themselves (Fuck The Boss).

Thirdly, it was effective. The plate is now forward, my back doesn’t hurt and we are looking at other small health and safety things that we can change in the same way.

Fourthly, and probably most importantly, this case was a microcosm for the way we approach organising in the IWW. The hotplate was kept against the wall purely as an expression of management’s power and to prevent me, a worker, from making a change to the working environment. It required direct/collective action to resolve it, and crucially, this wasn’t done in a neat or easy way. There was no official end point or victory. The bosses just gave up on pushing it back after a long grind. Moreover, it’s essential that we keep it in its place. If we ease up, they will recover their power over this issue. The victory rests on our collective strength rather than any outside force.

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