Thursday, 26 Nov 2020

Whitewater Unions, and a Toobin-Like Bathroom Mistake

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Norma Rae on the River

Before the pandemic, I worked in the outdoor adventure industry as a multiday river guide. For many, it’s a dream job — living outside in beautiful places, adventuring on big whitewater. However, the rosy outside perspectives are underlain by the same plagues of the regular work force: unreliable schedules, cash tips, unpaid training, no benefits, unsafe working conditions, wage theft, racism, sexism, homophobia, fatphobia, etc.

What advice do you have for starting a union in a nontraditional workplace? There is excitement among the guides, but none are organizers.

— Anonymous, Pacific Northwest

Everyone deserves to work in a safe, equitable environment. It can be challenging to start a union in a nontraditional workplace, but it has been done. In 1996, for example, the women who worked at the Lusty Lady strip club formed a union to protect themselves against unfair labor practices. A year later, they signed a contract affording them better pay, sick leave and other concessions.

You may not be organizers, but you can and must develop those skills if you want to create a union and make it successful. The benefit of a union is the power of the collective, so first you need to talk to your co-workers to gauge their interest, figure out what you all want, and encourage as many of them as possible to join together in the effort. In most cases, a majority of employees must agree to participate. Once your union is formed, you can begin to negotiate a contract with your employer and, hopefully, create a better working environment.

This sounds simple, but it isn’t. Most private employers will do everything in their power to thwart attempts at unionization. Not everyone you work with will want to join. And the biggest factor may be whether you are all considered traditional employees or independent contractors. Your legal rights change depending on the definition, and so do your employer’s obligations. I do wish you the very best with your efforts and hope your employer embraces this collective action.

Zoom Zoom in the Bathroom

Today I went to the bathroom while in a Google meeting with a colleague and forgot to turn off my camera. I kid you not. I remembered to turn off the sound, but I had switched to a different tab during the meeting and forgot about the video. After we ended the meeting, I recreated the whole situation to see what she might have seen. Fortunately, I had kept the light off, and I had perched my laptop on the sink so that you could only have seen me from the waist up. But if you were paying attention, you would have been able to tell I was in a bathroom.

Do I acknowledge this and apologize? Or do I pretend it didn’t happen and move on?

— Anonymous

One of the strangest aspects of this new normal is that our homes have now become our workplaces. Our colleagues now know far too much about our personal lives and the spaces in which we spend our time. They have access to intimacies we normally only share with our families and partners. When the lines between home and work are so blurred, accidents will happen.

I assume you weren’t trying to force your colleague to watch you use the bathroom because of some urinary kink. You were trying to multitask. This is embarrassing but harmless. I would pretend this didn’t happen and move on. You have no idea what she saw and to bring it up now would only make things unnecessarily awkward. Next time you absolutely have to go during the workday, triple-check that your audio and video are both off. Or, simply excuse yourself and leave your laptop where you work.

Practicing and Preaching

I work for a museum in New York, and I really enjoy what I do. With everything going on and so many travel restrictions, there are not a lot of tourists. Attendance has gone up a little each week, but it’s nothing like it should be. If our museum is going to survive we need more people to come in, and that’s why I feel like a hypocrite.

I know there are so many other museums and businesses that are in the same position, but on my days off, I can’t bring myself to leave my apartment. I don’t feel the need to risk exposing myself and others. At work, I interact with hundreds of people a day. I know we have put into place all the precautions we can, like temperature checks, mandatory masking, disinfecting and cleaning around the clock, but there is only so much you can do. I feel like I should do more to help support other museums in the city recover because I need other New Yorkers to do the same for me and my museum. I don’t know how to get over my own fears about being out in public when I don’t have to. Am I being too hard on myself?

— Anonymous, New York

You are being way too hard on yourself. You cannot single-handedly save New York museums — nor its restaurants or bookstores or galleries or coffee shops. Each of us can try to support as many local businesses as we realistically can, but the economic problems that businesses are facing cannot be solved by individual patronage. The crisis is a systemic issue that must be addressed by our city, state and federal governments.

Like most people, I miss going out, having a social life, spending hours in museums, going to movies and plays. I miss travel. I miss sitting in a bookstore with a new book I love so much I read half of it right there before buying it. We all miss the way things used to be. We all hope the places we love the most will make it through the pandemic. A great many of us are supporting as many GoFundMe campaigns as we can. We’re buying gift cards. We’re tipping extra when we get takeout. And despite these well-intentioned efforts, a lot of businesses and institutions we frequent and care about aren’t going to make it.

Nearly 250,000 people have died, and we have no clear sense of how high the toll will ultimately go. The truth of this moment is horrifying. We all need to grapple with it and recognize, as you note, that we can only do so much. Does this mean we surrender to apathy? No. You have to figure out how much risk you’re willing to tolerate. If you cannot bring yourself to visit a museum, consider buying a couple of memberships to use when there’s a vaccine. Give memberships as holiday gifts. Buy something from your favorite museum’s gift shop. But whatever you do, wear a mask when you leave your home, socially distance — and be more gentle with yourself.

Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at [email protected].

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