Improvisation at Work: A Labor Day Reflection

09/04/2016 01:22 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2016
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From Uber to grad students and trade deals, there’s been a lot of job related fights to pay attention to in 2016. But this Labor Day, “Fight for Fifteen”—the growing movement to increase minimum wages to $15-an-hour—deserves a special spotlight.

It’s not that Fight for Fifteen’s successes, which this year included victories in the enormous states of New York and California, haven’t been covered. Reporters often use words like “laughable” to emphasize just how off-the-wall pundits viewed the $15 demand when the campaign’s strikers first hit the streets in late-2012. It’s just that many have missed one of the more compelling parts of the story: Fight for Fifteen is proof that labor has decided to improvise—and it’s working.

You may not have realized that today improv is just as likely to be honed in board rooms and classrooms as it is performed on stage at Second City. But it’s happening because many organizations have figured out that “yes-anding”—the magical improv principle of always accepting, and then building on, facts or ideas as they arise—can spark amazing innovation. Fight for Fifteen is now providing a glimpse of what can happen when a movement says “yes-and” too.

Take the campaign’s unprecedented use of walkouts. Though most people associate unions with strikes, the reality is that, prior to 2012, labor had largely cast aside the tactic. This was in part due to labor law, which allows employers to hire people to replace strikers even, in many cases, once the strike is over and workers want their jobs back. Fight for Fifteen, however, came at this problem from a different angle, realizing that the tactic’s underlying flash could be preserved, and its greatest risk minimized, when workers strike for one day only. Scenes of hundreds of low wage non-union workers fighting back on the street have been an irresistible anachronism for the media to cover—and something legislators have not been able to ignore.

If the return of the walkout has showcased a willingness to take an out-of-the-box idea and run with it, the way the activism actually comes alive gets to improvisation’s core. Whereas conventional strikes are long planned, founded on tight relationships, and typically a last resort, Fight for Fifteen has embraced a strike-first strategy that simply directs bursts of energy into the workplace. On strike days, campaigners stream into stores calling out for workers they may not have even met to say “yes” to an unexpected opportunity to fight for better conditions by “anding” out the door. Other days workers just take off on their own.

Of course, this untested and decentralized approach also means that Fight for Fifteen has never known whether any of it would amount to much. But the Upright Citizen’s Brigade would say the same thing about their sketches. Improvisation is an experiment. The campaign could have pored over polling or hired economists to tell it the “right” amount of money to demand. Instead, $15 essentially came about by accident, because $20 seemed too high and $10 felt too low. Similarly, while the strikes have received the lion’s share of attention, Fight for Fifteen has really sought to pressure employers through a kitchen sink approach. In the end it may be global pressure, supply chain kinks, wage and hour suits, shareholder protests, or legal wrangling over the illusory independence of franchisees that finally brings a fast food, retail, or any other massive employer to the table to talk about Fight for Fifteen’s less publicized goal: the right to unionization without retaliation.

The truth is, no one can say for sure where Fight for Fifteen will be the next time Labor Day rolls around. Does that raise doubts about whether it can keep expanding? For sure. But that’s not a hole in the strategy. When it comes to improvisation, that is the strategy.

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