Twenty years ago this summer I got hired as a part-time house manager at a theater in Ann Arbor, MI. Occasionally I’d work with an IATSE union stagehand I’ll call Fred. Fred didn’t speak to me for the first couple years I worked there, and I had no idea why. At first it really bugged me, but eventually I just settled on finding it both baffling and funny.

When I later became a full-time employee, I began assisting the facility manager with maintenance projects. One quiet May afternoon he sent me to the backstage green room to clean out the fridge. It was quite nasty, half-full of rotten leftovers from the last tour that rolled through town before all the students left. But I didn’t care, I was getting paid. I turned on the radio and started chucking old party trays into a trash bag. I was scrubbing the inside of the fridge when Fred walked in. I said hi. Surprised to see me, he stared for a moment, mumbled, “Hey,” and quickly reversed course. That was the longest conversation we’d ever had.

Then a shocking thing happened the next time I saw him at work — his stoic face broke into a warm, beaming smile and he said, “Hey Tara, how are you doing today?” I said, “Oh, hey Fred! I’m good, how are you?” From then on, whenever I happened to see him on a show night he went out of his way to be friendly and helpful. My guess is he assumed I was a lazy manager unworthy of his good will, but seeing me complete a menial task changed his mind. 

I think about that dynamic with Fred a lot when I consider the major difference between Michigan workplaces and the ones I’ve encountered here in the South. Up there, being competent at work is more important than being friendly with your coworkers. Down here, getting along with everyone at work is more important than doing your job well. I realize this isn’t true for every person, circumstance, region, or industry. I speak mainly from the perspective of doing customer service, but also base these observations on job stories I’ve heard from other transplants. Workplace dynamics feel very different here, and I think non-southern labor organizers should consider that when they imagine what it’s gonna take to unionize these parts.

Here’s an example of how “getting along” culture works in the South — when I worked at a health food store in Tennessee, there was this assistant store manager I’ll call Dana. Unlike our many lazy managers, Dana was hyper-competent, serious, and didn’t mince words. She was from Chicago. I found her intimidating at first, but quickly figured out her stern demeanor wasn’t mean at all. Once you got to know her, she had a great sense of humor. I also noticed she didn’t shy away from menial tasks and did whatever work needed getting done. She kept busy and expected the rest of us to do the same. 

From what I could gather, most everyone hated her. I’ll never forget when the food service manager came huffing and puffing into the break room saying, “Dana can’t talk to people that way!” Apparently she’d bluntly asked him to send her a report he’d forgotten to do and he was pissed she’d said this in front of the kitchen crew. I couldn’t believe how much this guy was freaking out. But he probably would’ve found her request less mortifying had she couched it with smiles and assurances she wasn’t mad or anything.  People here expect you to take a softer approach because being polite and friendly matters way more than simply getting the work done. 

I’ll be honest, while I often miss northern real talk and people telling me exactly what they think, I prefer southern customer service workplaces. The clientele don’t tend to be as rude as they are in the North. Also it’s harder to get away with outright abusive behavior toward your coworkers. In Michigan, I had multiple mangers yell at me because I made a mistake. That’s never happened to me down here. I also notice that monstrous, Type A control freak behavior is way less common in the South. So yeah, workplaces tend to be more disorganized, and lazy and/or incompetent managers are more common. But honestly, I’ve never been paid enough to care if others aren’t doing their job right. I just focus on doing mine well. And if other people’s crappy work ethic hurt the company, that’s the company’s problem, not mine.

But if we wanna get to a place where workers earn good wages and have more control over their workplaces, we’re gonna have to organize our coworkers. And I’ve got a feeling that this “everybody just get along” culture is gonna be a big obstacle. I see that polite timidity creep up in my organizing work all the time. When people are afraid to call voters or even the dues-paying members of their own organization because they don’t wanna seem pushy or intrusive, my salty Rust Belt self wants to say, “Welp, that’s how the sausage gets made! So suck it up and download Google Voice if you don’t want your number to show up on their phone.” But I know that would just upset people more, so again, I have to take a softer approach. People around here don’t say “suck it up” to each other’s faces.

I just try to imagine what it would be like trying to convince my former retail coworkers that we should get together as a group and confront the boss. I think about trying to convince them that yes, we might have to visit workers at their doorsteps if we can’t reach them by phone. I don’t believe these tactics are inherently rude. But between social atomization and this culture of getting along, it’s gonna take a lot of gentle prodding to help people understand what we must do to win. We’re gonna have to get aggressive, while still finding a way to practice patience and kindness with each other. But isn’t that what worker solidarity is all about? 

Mural by Daniel Manrique, outside the United Electrical Workers building in Chicago

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