An Open Letter to the Collective of Sisters’ Camelot

This open letter to the collective of Sisters’ Camelot was written by Minneapolis community member Nikolaus Maier. It was published on April 19, 2013 on http://olcsc.blogspot.com. To comment on this letter, please visit that webpage.

To the Collective of Sisters’ Camelot:

Sisters’ Camelot is in crisis. Nothing less than the very existence of the organization is at stake. Failure will mean the destruction of a beautiful and worthwhile project. That is why it is so important that we not just shut down discussion, or reduce it to a series of talking points.

Who am I?

I am a longtime supporter of Sisters’ Camelot. I have on multiple occasions volunteered my time and my money to the organization. I am also a member of your community; namely south Minneapolis.

I have been indirectly involved with the strikers since before the strike even happened. Most of the information I have about the strike comes from the Canvas Union. I acknowledge that this more than likely skews my perspective. I have been hungry for information from the collective about their perspective for some time. I read your community statements and posts made shortly after the beginning of the strike, and have made a concerted effort to inform myself.

Why am I writing this?

I want information. I want dialogue, and I want action. I am tired of sitting on the sidelines watching a bunch of people stand around while the house they worked so hard to build burns to the ground. I am tired of reading the same talking points over and over, tired of reading (what appear to be) slanderous accusations and verbal abuse. I want answers, and I want movement.

This letter is addressed directly to the collective of Sisters’ Camelot for a reason. Throughout this entire debacle, most of what’s been said on your side of things has been said by your friends rather than directly by you. This letter is a direct appeal to you to engage, if not with the union, then at least with your supporters and your community. We want to hear your voice. Break your silence.

Last night, I attended a candlelight vigil hosted by the canvas union outside the place two of you call home. I came hoping for dialogue, for answers. What I instead got was more of the same. What I heard was more rhetoric and accusations. One of your friends came out to talk to us, and spent an hour saying that she didn’t want to talk about Shuge, but then talked about virtually nothing but Shuge. Except that she was only willing to hurl accusations at him, without any supporting evidence, then shut down the conversation yet again by saying that she didn’t want to talk about Shuge. Nothing she said was new, nor was her voice particularly helpful in resolving this conflict because she has no power in this situation.

You will notice throughout this letter that I will ascribe statements or positions to the collective that were actually said or taken by your friends and other “community members.” This is intentional. I know that these individuals have consistent, direct contact with you, and so it seems reasonable to assume that the way they see things is roughly the same way you do. If it is not your intention to let these people speak for you, then you need to speak for yourself, because right now they are speaking for you. If in any way my assumptions are incorrect I invite you to respond and tell us the truth. Please.

Shuge’s firing

The only actual legitimate reason I’ve ever heard brought up for Shuge’s firing is an incident that happened 4 years ago where Shuge stole from a coworker. To date, I have heard a detailed, and to my mind satisfactory explanation of the events described from Shuge, but no such explanation from you. Your story lacks detail, which makes it at best incomplete, and at worst, slander. If Shuge really is a terrible person and we are all rallying behind a monster, maybe you should tell us why you think that instead of just asking us to trust you that he’s a bad guy. Give specific details, please. We want to know. Right now it looks totally unjustified, so the onus is on you to prove that it was justified.

Attacking

One theme that your friend touched on a lot with regard to Shuge (and to a lesser extent with the union in general) is the issue of “attacking.” This word must have been said by her at least 100 times; either she felt attacked, the collective felt attacked, or there were too many attacks, and people didn’t feel safe to move forward.

I find this stance to be asinine and childish. I strongly suspect that by saying so that I will also be called to task for “attacking”. I would like to respond to this accusation in advance by pointing the following things out:

1) When you adopt a victim’s stance like this, it shuts down all conversation and makes the entire discussion about your feelings, which is narcissistic, narrow-minded and totally ineffective.

2) In the actual situation we are discussing now, the collective attacked first by shutting down negotiations, firing a striker, defaming his character publicly, then retreating behind a defensive line of refusing to talk at all. Behavior like this makes protests of aggression absurd and hypocritical.

3) I called this behavior childish. I did not do so because I want to personally insult the people engaging in it. I am stating this as an empirical fact. People who constantly complain about being attacked and victimized are behaving in a childish way because this is a typical behavior for children.

4) I have known Shuge for years now, and I harbor no illusions about his character. I do not believe him to be some sort of saint, mascott or martyr to the cause. He appears to me to be, just like the rest of us, a human being with flaws and strengths. In all the time I’ve known him, I have never felt “attacked” by him.

5) I strongly suspect that your use of the word “attacking” is code for “disagrees with us.” These things are not the same, but given the contexts and frequency with which the word is applied to your striking workers, I can’t help but feel this is true.

“Nuances” (The Collective Process)

One common response to the complaints raised by the SCCU is that Sisters’ Camelot is collectively run, making the situation more “nuanced” than that of boss/underling. You claim that the collective isn’t truly management because canvassers have the power to change their workplaces already. This issue has already been discussed to death elsewhere, so I’ll not belabor the point, but in short:

1) Just because I can become the manager of McDonalds after working there for 6 months doesn’t mean that the manager isn’t my boss. A person, or group of people that hires, pays, disciplines, and fires another person, is a boss/manager/overseer/whatever you want to call it; the power imbalance in the relationship is there.

2) Multiple canvassers have independently voiced valid complaints with the collective’s handling of their grievances. Their complaints are consistent, significant and sound reasonable to me, which means that the collective is systemically deficient in addressing the needs of their employees. And that is exactly the problem that unions are intended to solve.

3) Whenever these complaints are brought up about the existing processes, the only response I’ve ever seen is to repeat the original argument, which completely ignores the complaints about the process. This tactic of ignoring oppositional statements and re-stating talking points is one I have seen repeatedly from the collective, and not just for this issue. Please stop doing this, it is belittling and offensive.

4) When you continue to insist that the canvassers use the very process they told you they don’t want to use because it doesn’t work, that sounds more like a boss telling you to put it in the suggestion box than anything else.

5) I suspect that you harbor inner resentment at having been called a “boss” because of the extremely negative connotations that word has in your community. I am sorry that you feel this way, because it seems to have blinded you to the reality of your situation.

Disrespect/Immaturity

Another common theme I’ve heard repeated over and over is that the canvassers have demonstrated a great deal of disrespect, or have behaved immaturely toward the collective. I have a few things to say about this, too:

1) As with virtually all of your arguments, this one is sorely lacking detail. What could they have possibly done to you that was so bad that you would fire one of them and refuse to talk for almost two months? I am having a hard time imagining it, so I could really use some SPECIFICS, please.

2) If their behavior affected their actual job responsibilities, I might take the argument that the canvassers behave immaturely/disrespectfully more seriously. But it hasn’t. Your canvassers have doubled your funding in the past few years, so it seems to me that your argument is without merit.

3) I used to be one, and I’ve known many canvassers throughout the years. Much like longshoremen, I have found them to be a crude bunch on the whole. Their job is stressful and difficult (and if you don’t think it is, I suggest you go knock on some strangers’ doors asking for money and see how that works for you). The way canvassers tend to deal with that stress is with drugs, alcohol and crude humor. If you can’t handle that, I strongly suggest you find a line of work that doesn’t put you in direct contact with canvassers.

a) On the topic of drugs and alcohol: this, too has been flung at the canvassers as a character smear. It’s been said that all they spend their money on is drugs and booze anyhow, so why should they be allowed to unionize? What this basically says is that your employees’ addictions are valid justifications for you to discriminate against them. That is illegal.

b) I’m also about 95% certain you all get drunk and high, a lot. I specifically saw two of you drinking beer and smoking a bowl through the window during our candlelight vigil. So when you get drunk and high, how is that different? What am I missing?

Legal Issues (Many)

Shuge has maintained throughout that his firing was illegal. The National Labor Relations Board has just ruled in his favor. I know you don’t care much about legal issues because you don’t believe in state authority. I’m with you on hating the government/cops/money power elite. Down with all of them. Unfortunately, our not believing in the state does not immunize us from it.

I hope that this isn’t news to you, but you are losing the legal battle. Badly.

If this continues, the following consequences are likely:

1) You will be forced to rehire Shuge
2) Because Shuge’s firing is at this point the reason for the strike, you will also be forced to rehire all of the striking workers
3) Because you firing Shuge was unjust, you will have to pay all of your workers back wages for the entire duration of the strike.

When I brought these issues up to your friend, she responded that the canvassers are independent contractors, so technically it’s against the law for them to have a union. She said it in a way that made me think that you believe this is your trump card, that if you have to go nuclear, you’ll just tell the court that the canvassers were contractors, so you’re off the hook.

Unfortunately for you, the National Labor Relations Board also found that the canvassers who work for you do not meet the requirements for independent contractors, and that they are misclassified, and should be classified as employees. This also means that if this goes before a judge, the likely result is that you will be forced to convert the re-hired, back-paid canvassers to employee status, along with the many costs that entails.

Let’s game this out a little further…

Your friend mentioned that you were running out of money. After legal costs are added in, at the end of this, your organization will owe more money to its workers than it has, assets included. Which means that they will own Sisters’ Camelot, or what’s left of it. Oops.

I dislike the justice system. I wish it didn’t exist. My wishing does not in any way protect me from the consequences of running afoul of it. And you, my friends, have most definitely run afoul of it.

Freedom of Association

In your press release, and in other statements thereafter, I’ve heard a lot of talk about freedom of association. I understand your desire to surround yourself with the people you love. I do it too. We all do. Sometimes we don’t get to. This is one of those times.

The fact that all of the canvassers want to work with Shuge, and that he spends very little time with you, and virtually all of his time with them, makes their opinions of him carry much more weight.

Furthermore, when you had a personal issue with Shuge, you fired him. If Shuge had a personal problem with you, he could not fire you. That power imbalance is unethical, illegal, and elitist.

“Deadbeat Dad”

Shuge has been labeled a deadbeat dad as a justification for firing and refusing to rehire him. I have a couple of problems with this:

1) Shuge is withholding child support because his child’s mother is violating the terms of their custody agreement and refusing him time with his son. I think it’s more than a bit offensive to slap the label of “Deadbeat Dad” on someone who is trying to spend more time with their kid.

2) I don’t understand how firing and refusing to rehire a man is supposed to help him to pay child support.

“Shuge should just bow out to allow this process to go forward”

Another thing your friend kept bringing up was how in other situations like this, people have agreed to bow out and allow the rest of us to go on without the burden of the toxic relationship. She seemed to think that Shuge should do that. I suspect this may be your last, desperate hope: that Shuge will finally come to his senses and extricate himself from your lives like he should have years ago.

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. That isn’t going to happen. As of right now, he has a very winnable case against you in court, and if that weren’t enough, he is also receiving a tremendous amount of support from his coworkers, friends, and the community. He believes himself to be in the right, and from what I’ve seen so far, he absolutely is, so why on earth would ShugE ever “take one for the team” here? You need to come to grips with the fact that Shuge will, at least for the near future, continue to be a part of your life, whether you like it or not.

What happens next?

That’s entirely up to you. I’d like to see you rehire Shuge, pound out some negotiations and get back to the vitally important work of feeding our community. The mission of Sisters’ Camelot is orders of magnitude more important than any grudge you may have against any other human being.

Failing that, I’d at least want to hear you speak. Are you afraid of getting in legal trouble? It’s already about as bad as it can get, so why not go all in? You declining to speak makes what little you have said sound like slander. And remember, if it’s true, it’s not slander, so backing up your accusations and character smears with actual facts and details would expose you to less legal risk, not more. Please, I urge you to break silence and begin conversations again.

Sincerely,
Nikolaus Maier

Advertisements