Successful Kickoff Action In “Houseboy” Sorority Fight

At 12:24pm today, after a sunny Berkeley bike ride, Mackenzie and I were the first ones to arrive at the designated decoy meet-up location, just down the block from the actual target. We taped up a sign that read: HOUSE BOY SOLIDARITY. Slowly, people began to trickle in. Many knew each other through other political work, greeting each other with big smiles and hugs, and “long-time-no-see’s.” By 12:50, everyone knew the plan, the choreography, and the goal. The ten of us headed toward the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority house, one leading our chant on the bullhorn: AIN’T NO POWER LIKE THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE ‘CAUSE THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE DON’T STOP!!!

Thus began our first action as the East Bay Solidarity Network (EBSol).

William had been working and living at UC Berkeley’s Alpha Omicron Pi as a “house boy”: a common term used to refer to live-in cooks who help prepare meals for Cal sororities. He was still receiving training, and had had no serious reprimands or complaints about his performance. On the contrary, he often received a “Good work” and a fist pound from the other, senior cook at the end of the shift. All that changed when they fired the dishwasher and made William and the others pick up the extra work. Without extra pay.

After weeks of working extra hours to cover the undone job, and clearly seeing how exploitative this was, William demanded that his manager hire another dishwasher. They did not; but not long afterward, he was called in for another meeting. He was told that he was being fired for unsanitary work practices (again, having never been seriously reprimanded or warned about any such failures), and that he had three days to move out of his lodgings in the basement of the sorority.

Until now, the sorority management had been dealing with one lone, vulnerable worker: easy to exploit, oppress, fire for causing trouble, illegally evict, and all that sort of typical thing. But today, William wasn’t a lone worker. He was a part of the solidarity network, and he was joined by his fellow members.

Together, we brought his earthly belongings up from the basement (where they had been packed up without his consent and stored in the boiler room, to make space for the new “house boy”) and, after a brief back-and-forth with his back-stabbing co-worker, took up our formation on the front staircase and passed each item, bucket-brigade-style, down the line. (Wish I had pictures of the bucket brigade, but it’s hard to be photographer and participant at the same time!) Meanwhile, Ryan played a militant march on his snare drum. We had discipline, choreography, and musical flair, man. Doubtless we left an impression.

Now that the managers had been made distinctly aware of our collective presence, William delivered to them the official EBSol letter, specifying our reasonable demands: $1000 in relocation assistance, and a written agreement that they won’t contest if he decides to file for unemployment. Our letter also let them know that if our demands are not met within 14 days, we, as a group, will take action against them.

When all his stuff was piled on the sidewalk, William took the bullhorn and told his whole story to an explicit crowd (our group, now 13 total with some late arrivals) and an implicit crowd (the sorority girls, peeping wide-eyed in bunches through the upper-floor windows; and the managers and staff on site). A manager from a nearby sorority, an in-law of one of William’s former managers, came storming over and tried to shut him down — grabbed at his bullhorn, and threatened to call the cops on all of us for trespassing in a “private home.” We pointed out that it was not only a home, but a workplace, and William kept shouting out the gory details of how they screwed him over.

With his passion, his technology, and the cheering response of the rest of us in the solidarity group, William (and we) easily drowned out the flustered and angry stand-in-boss, creating quite a spectacle for the women watching from the windows. (Whom William was quick to remind that it’s the boss we’re fighting, not the sisters.) For a while the managers even withheld William’s last check, trying to force us all to stay til the cops came in response to the bogus trespassing call, but soon enough they relented and handed over his payment. We loaded his belongings into cars, and left happy.

There are a million reasons I’m excited about how today’s action went. For one, it feels great to take up the case of a domestic worker, whose labor is so completely invisibilized and underpaid most of the time. Second, enthusiasm in the group was really high, partly because everyone was in a fighting mood, partly because a lot of us are friends, and also because this was not a symbolic action: it had both the moral high ground and specific objectives to accomplish (dramatize the moveout with disciplined formations; deliver the demand letter promising more action to come). Also, I think, we all felt inspired to see William stand up to his bosses (or their stand-ins), express his anger at being exploited, and be emboldened by the real mechanism of our group. It made me feel, at least, that if I’m ever getting screwed by my landlord or a boss, and I don’t have a fighting union to help me, then I sure as hell want a solidarity network like this! There’s a lot to be learned just by being there to help other people’s fights.

As with any tactic, this one had its inherent limitations; and there were moments of confusion and things we could have done better. This week, the five of us who planned the action (William included) will get together to debrief and reflect on how to improve. But overall, I think we really pulled off something fine today, and I think everyone who participated felt it was deeply worthwhile. Now, the campaign has begun — more updates to come in 14 days….unless our victory comes sooner!

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