Yesterday, I woke up to a frustrated post by my 26-year-old son, asking for some reinforcement on the Facebook page for Buckland Hills Mall where he works. He and a group of other mall employees had been posting for hours, looking for information about whether the mall would be opening on time, given the six inches of snow on the ground and the six more yet to come. Sleet was now falling from the sky adding a treacherous element to the already dangerous driving conditions. I added my post to the lengthening list of increasingly angry people, and chatted online with my son for a bit about how ridiculous it was that no one from the mall had responded. Finally, at 9:18am, long after the opening workers would have had to clean off their cars and head out in the snow and ice, the mall announced that they would be open for normal business hours, from 10am to 9pm.
In the meantime, Gov. Malloy had called a press conference to issue multiple weather-related warnings and restrictions, telling non-essential workers to not report to work, closing roads and banning tandem trailers on highways, and exhorting people to stay home if at all possible, for their safety and the safety of others. The other malls in the area had either closed or announced delayed openings hours earlier.
The mall Facebook page fairly exploded with anger. Before long there were dozens of responses to the announcement, complaints from employees and shoppers alike, challenging the mall for putting employees at risk.
When I’m talking with my co-conspirators in Activate CT, the small grassroots organization we created, we often lament how difficult it is to get people motivated; not just to complain but to “DO SOMETHING, GODAMMIT.” It’s the easiest thing in the world to post a complaint to Facebook, or to like or share a post, but getting people motivated to do something, whether it’s writing a letter, making a phone call, or getting out on the streets, has become something of a holy grail for us. That cherished desire to get people to stand up for what they believe in is what the group is founded on.
On the Facebook page, I could sense an opportunity to mobilize. To activate. I started to wake up. My heart skipped a beat. This is my one true love and I was going to see what I could *do* about this injustice.
I quickly posted a comment with the phone numbers of the local news desks. People started emailing and calling. I followed that up with phone calls of my own to each of the news stations, saying there was a story brewing that was worth telling – very disgruntled employees and their supporters, starting to coalesce around the issue of uncaring managers and lack of regard for employee safety.
I didn’t yet know that there would be another story, one starring the mall management company actually profiting from putting low-wage workers in danger.
I followed along on Facebook as the black cloud of discontent and disgust continued to roil. Then a comment by my son caught my eye. He had mentioned something about a fine that would be levied on stores that chose to close, or even delay opening.
A fine for simply opening late?
What madness is this?
Turns out that some of the stores indeed have written into their leases that they will open on time, even on extreme weather days…Or else.
I picked up the phone to call the General Manager of the mall, one Nancy Murray, at 860-644-6369 (in case you wanted to give her a call yourself). I figured she’d be home in her McMansion with a cup of Green & Black organic hot cocoa from Whole Foods clutched in her evil corporate claws, but she actually picked up the phone herself.
The conversation went something like this:
Me: Why didn’t you delay opening?
Her: Corporate blah blah company policy.
Me: Why didn’t you have someone answer the pleas of the employees on Facebook, begging for information about whether they should brave the roads?
Her: Corporate blah blah website they should check with the retailer blah.
Me: *IS THERE A FINE ON STORES IF THEY DON’T OPEN?*
Her: Every store is different, blah blah, managers should check their leases. If managers don’t have access to the corporate leases from home (!), they should “use their best judgment,” but yes, if they open late they’ll probably be fined. Blah blah. And, I am a very busy Important Mucketymuck and that is enough talking to you, GOOD DAY, SIR. >click<
Okay, wow. Let me get this straight. If a store opens during a major snowstorm, the mall collects their rent as usual. The store pays its employees to come in, through snow and ice, up a freaking hill, to play Candy Crush for eight hours, because customers are generally smart enough to not go to the mall when the Governor of this great state says stay home. If a store closes during a major snowstorm, or even opens late, the mall will still collect their rent, and also charge them a fine. Ms. Murray wouldn’t say how much, but rumor has it as between $500 and $1,000. Several employees reported seeing mall security walking around at 10am, writing down the store names of the malfeasants and slackers, for later ease of fine-levying.
So, I called the media back again, and informed them of this latest twist. Within the hour, they were at the mall interviewing my son for a story that would be aired later that night. Here’s the link. Please watch, and when you see him, tell him how awesome he is for standing up for the dignity and safety of the people he works with.
In the middle of all of this, a woman contacted me privately and asked that I not share her name or any identifying information. Her husband, an owner of one of the small stores in the mall, was on his way to work that morning, trying to avoid the fine he couldn’t afford, and ended up in a snowbank. Fortunately, he was okay, but his car was totaled. It could have been, of course, much worse. After we chatted for a while, she bravely decided to call the media herself. I could “hear” it in her writing – she had turned from a scared, helpless pawn of the system into an empowered activist for her own little cause.
Hundreds of people have commented on WFSB’s Facebook post of the article, and still more on the article itself. The twisted logic of fining a store for trying to not get their low-wage employees killed seemed to have tapped a David and Goliath, Tale of Two Cities vein. The discussion continues, even thirty-six hours later.
Later that day, I wrote a post on Facebook about whether there is such a thing as having a “calling.” I wouldn’t have said so a couple of years ago, but I’m rethinking my stance. I still don’t believe in a higher power, but helping people fight back against injustice and (corporate and governmental) bullying, in big ways and small, makes my blood feel alive. I know what I’m supposed to do.
Recently a friend told me I reminded him of a tugboat. An unbeautiful comparison, but I suppose an at least sometimes accurate one.
(cont. below picture)
Most of what I and my fellow activists do feels like the hard, hard work of slinging a rope around what seem to be immovable objects, and pulling, pulling, hoping for them to budge, just a little. And then there are times like yesterday, when the massive tanker at the end of the rope turns into the current, and begins to steam ahead, of its own accord. My fondest dream is to tug until I don’t need to anymore, and then just get the hell out of the way.
February 7, 2pm Update: The mall manager somehow found out where Josh works (stalker!) and called his district manager to complain. It’s worth noting that Josh does not work for the mall, and he did the interview off of mall property. Surely she’s not going to turn this into a free speech issue? Surely she wouldn’t want to hit that wasps’ nest with a baseball bat. Stay tuned…