We’re featuring a story told by Monica Kostas, a contributor to MAS, about experiences in her workplace. Enjoy!

Start the Engine! First stop: Getting the cake.

Some time ago my boss decided to stop all birthday celebrations and parties of any sort, saying it was “too distracting” for the workers. I’m just now passing my six-month mark, so I haven’t been working there long enough to have seen these parties. The only decorations in the office where I work, that save the place from looking like a hospital or asylum, are these really crowded 30” x 40” collages with close ups of all the employees that attended previous end-of-the-year parties. There’s a few of these along the walls that lead to the hall where my office is. People often stop to look at them and gossip about ex-employees, or how much weight they’ve gained since this and that picture, and so on.

Since I’m sort of new (compared to the bulk of people who’ve worked there for several years), whenever someone catches me staring at the pictures they always take the time to name our co-workers, their plus-ones, and all the extended families that went to those parties. Then they tell me how drunk they got at whichever event, and that’s always followed by some funny anecdote. They really seem to miss those gatherings; I can tell by the amount of smiles in the pictures that something changed since the present boss took over, and sure enough they talk about that all the time.

“We used to be so happy” I hear often, “I mean we hated each other a lot of the times but at least it was a love-hate relationship, we would have fun. Now, no one gives a shit about anything or anyone, everything changed”. This is what Maria was telling me at lunchtime a few days ago while Santiago, Javier, and his wife were sitting at the other table. The overall attitude toward management is overt contempt for the bosses. I’ve seen mockery, outright insults, and constant shit-talk, in Spanish of course, except for when they’re around, then it’s all smiles. Whenever they come out with some new rule like, less hours for certain people or no more birthday celebrations, it gives people more fuel to mock them. That particular day was Javier’s birthday. No one really knew, nor brought him anything, so when his wife mentioned it was his birthday, we awkwardly said something like “Oh, aww…Happy …birthday!”

I suggested we celebrate. Maria’s responded by saying that they used to, someone would buy cake and they would break for a little bit to sing happy birthday, but not anymore, they’re not allowed. “What, that’s ridiculous! We should all go tell him we want to cut a cake for Javi,” I said. “Pff” Santiago scoffed, shaking his head. “He doesn’t let us anymore”.  I let the cynicism cool off and clocked back in, “Buen provecho, everybody”. I went back to my office and thought, “How does no one know it’s Javi’s birthday today?”

I work in a place where a lot of people are related to each other. There are about three major dynasties in the workplace, so many get to work with their sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, or mom and dad, and they’ve been doing so for many years. I’m a rarity though, along with a couple others who have gotten in without being related to anyone else. Then there’s the boss, his wife, and his son who are all the owners. I mention this because Javi’s part of one of the major families, and still it seemed like no one knew it was his birthday. I’m sure some of them knew, but for sure no one was showing it.

I quickly went back into the lunchroom, and asked if there was any way we could get a list of people’s birthdays. Javi, who handles people’s paychecks and information shook his head no; he didn’t seem like he wanted to help out.

“Ok…” I said.
“You could go around asking everyone, hahaha” Maria laughed out loud.
“Haha…ok” I walked back to my office.

“Ask everyone?” I thought. “I don’t even know everyone, I’m only close with a few people, the rest barely know me. How would I explain this? They’re totally going to think I’m a creeper. Creeper designer in the back, always creeping. Maybe I should wait till tomorrow; I’ll get home and consult with peeps if this is a good idea, I’ll get some tips. This could be jumping the gun, people don’t know me yet, it might be weird”.

“Fuck it”, I said. “I have a good story now, it’s no one’s birthday tomorrow”. I recycled a sheet of paper, and started marking half inch separated dots with a ruler on one side, and marking dots a couple inches apart to make straight lines in the sheet. “Why am I doing this”, I think. “I could just grab ruled paper. Whatever, DIY, it shows love”. I wrote in two columns, Name & Birthday.

Maria was back at her desk by that time, she works the closest to me. I showed her the paper, and she knew what it was about. She laughed and signed her name. I brought it to some other people and explained that today was Javi’s birthday, no one knew or brought him anything, and that we should at least know each other’s birthdays. Presenting a sheet requiring information was confusing people, I personally felt sketchy.

“But what’s this for?” they asked.
“Oh I don’t know, maybe we could bring some cookies or something next time, no one brought Javi anything ‘cause we didn’t know”.
“Yeah, that’s not right…. You know, we used to celebrate birthdays before and we would bring cake…”
“I know, I know, next time we’ll do something, even if it’s small” I replied.

After a couple people signed the sheet, I told them to keep passing it down. I thought, “this shit’s gonna get lost in a second”. I went to get water so I wouldn’t stand there looking if people were signing it; I went to the bathroom, checked my e-mail, and then came back.

Most everyone in the front had signed it, and better yet people were out of their chairs chit-chatting about previous birthday parties, funny stories, asking each other when their birthdays are, and their signs. It was a lively sight. I took the sheet to the back part of the office where Javi and his wife work, and when I brought the sheet to Javi’s wife, she leaned in and spoke in a low voice, she said:

“Sabes que, you know what, I’m gonna go ask the boss if he can let us have a cake for Javier”.
I leaned in, and said “yeah, great, for when?”
“Right now”.
“Right now? You brought him a cake?”
“No, I’ll go get one”.
“What? Where? Right now?” I asked her this a few times. I thought, is she really stopping her work to get in a car and drive out of here?
“Yeah, right now, I’ll go to the store and come back”.
“Ok? Ok…Yeah, sure, yeah, let me know what he says”.
She signed the sheet, and I walked back to my office perplexed at what just happened.

Looking at the sheet full of names and dates, I said to myself “does this make me in charge of birthdays now? What do I do with this?” I opened up Excel and made a Birthday spreadsheet, color coded and with borders. I printed a few copies of it then went back to work for a while and tried to let my mind chew on everything while mindlessly getting through all my e-mails.

About an hour later, the sales manager, Javi’s niece, comes to my office to tell me I should go to the break-room because we’re going to cut a cake for Javi.

“Ok? Ok. Ok yeah, I’ll be right there”.

I walked towards the break-room, and people were crowding up in the tiny room, quiet smiles, and awkward hands in their pockets. The cake even had his name on it. Javi walked in last and a Feliz Cumpleaños ensued. The cake looked lavish. I didn’t have any since milk does terrible things to me, but it looked damn good.

Afterwards, we all laughed, talked, and joked in the break-room. Starting to make my way back to my desk, I posted the birthday list by the clock-in machine. Maria walked with me and said “That was cool… I’m glad we did that, even if they don’t show it, everyone likes to feel special”. I laughed lightly and said “You’re so cheesy”. I grabbed her arm laughing “But that’s true…That’s for sure.”

The takeaway

The last six months have been a quiet journey of learning the lay of the land. I’ve built relationships with a few co-workers, which as I mentioned is hard for me since I’m isolated in the back, and they’ve been invaluable to me in organizing. The few times we’ve chatted about work, I’ve learned the various shitty things that happen at our job like the extreme pay inequity, lack of benefits, sketchy contracts people get, cuts to wages, and so on. Every time I ask how we could move forward with our grievances together, I always get the same cynical response “this place will never change, you can’t do anything to make them change”. I can’t stress how much people are stuck on that response.

Sitting at my work desk, or at home, I ask myself time and time again, how do I get people to fight when they’re so hopelessly disillusioned and beaten down? What would be a fight worth fighting for? What if we organize to get benefits? What if we get people their wages back? I bring up these subjects here and there when I can and when it’s appropriate, but the cynicism is so intense it’s stifling. Hearing it over and over again sometimes makes me feel that maybe things simply can’t change. But then cake day happened, and that made me see things a bit differently.

Although it wasn’t a big battle, it was an instance of action in a place where nothing out of the ordinary has happened in a long time. Looking at it closely, I got to put myself out there in a small way by making non-work related small talk and reaching out to people I usually don’t interact with. We achieved a work stoppage at least for a good half hour (which we plan to continue), and people got to sit together and remember what that was like. They used to do this, and now we’re doing it again because everyone wants to.

This taught me to think more creatively when organizing at work. I realized struggle doesn’t necessarily have to fit typical fights like gaining better wages, or healthcare. Certainly I’m not discrediting those fights, they’re valuable and worthwhile, but struggle could also be catalyzed from situations that don’t overtly spell out politics. Maybe these small actions look too minuscule or insignificant at the time, but in a place where people lost their basic relationships, big fights could sound unreasonable or impossible. I feel now, that I’ve been too focused on looking for opportunities to embark on fights that I’ve heard and read about before, while I was overlooking some elementary grievances people were expressing.

Sitting in the break-room seeing everyone talking and laughing with each other was a clear demonstration that these social connections are the backbone of workplace companionship, and that without them deeper engagements in struggle might not be possible. These social events are also experiences that make work passable. These are moments people look forward to, so even if this action wasn’t a big gesture, it’s a sign that people feel collectively ready to go against what the boss says about workers getting “too distracted”, and it shows that, at least right now, they value their relationships among each other more than his commands.