How to Form a Union and Beat the Boss: An Interview with Doug Geisler

Despite how they are characterized by the “baby boomer” generation, Millenials have a tough economic hill to climb up. Precarious work, falling wages, the shackling of student debt, and a catastrophically expensive urban living situation has set the tone for the “downwardly mobile” generation. This situation did not happen in a vacuum, it is the result of the decline of the largest social movement in American history.

The labor movement is the center of confronting class as it binds workers together in a common struggle, confronting the dynamics of their workplace directly rather than appealing to a politician or corporate philanthropist. The decline of unions, both because of de-industrialization and the concerted attacks by neoliberalism, has escalated the class tension as income inequality jumped. This may be why unions make sense to Millenials in a way that aging boomers had forgotten, they know that their workplaces will not take care of them unless they band together and fight back.

Doug Geisler has been a union organizer for twenty years and he has brought his experience in shop-floor organizing to his love for roleplaying games. Beat the Boss is a new game he has published to give Millenials the skills they need to organize their workplace, and to build the militant movement to take back their lives.

Why are we seeing growing inequality, a drop in union membership, and the “gig economy?”

The dominant, western cultural message being shared relates to individual responsibility. From multiple vectors, actors and media the message that you are the master of your income, master of your domain and your current conditions are all your doing has yielded this condition. It’s total garbage. We rely on the impact of many people and systems in each day’s actions (getting up, getting to work, having work, eating breakfast…). There is no way to extricate any one individual from the complex web we exist in. Trying to do so is bound to result in systemic illness.

Growing inequality, decreasing union membership and a growth in cottage industries are the sick result of this individuality message. I’m not advocating eliminating all personal responsibility (while you can you should wipe your own ass), but making that the primary responsibility imbalances and obfuscates the place that your fellow workers have in a health system.

The more telling question to ask is ‘Who benefits from growing inequality, decreasing union membership and a growth in cottage industries?’ People with assets, people with lots of privilege benefit from that shift. And it is the end result of a decades long programming effort by those macro-economic forces. The actors change but the roles stay the same.

Why is a roleplaying game the answer? What is Beat the Boss?

Playing a roleplaying game is a counter-cultural action. It operates counter to the standard messages we receive from all around us. You are not spending extravagantly. You are spending time with other people, outside of your family. You are talking and not consuming other media. You are given the capacity to create a consensual reality that is not bound to recreate the status quo and in the case of Beat the Boss undermines the status quo. It has the capacity of good sci-fi to propose or solve social issues and play out the consequences to a conclusion.

Beat the Boss is a table-top role playing game. Not a board game like Pandemic. Not a computer RPG like Zelda. A real pen, paper and dice game where players fill the roles of organizers, in all our shapes and sizes, taking on the fight to help workers beat their boss.

How does the game work? How does it take a worker through organizing their workplace?

In Beat the Boss, the player-organizers begin the story by identifying the problem or making contact with an angry worker. From there the group of 3–6 players create and implement strategy to build onto the three most crucial elements of a successful organizing campaign: a full and accurate list, a group of leaders committed to justice and a majority of people taking action.

A campaign can go from first contact all the way to recognition and ratifying a first contract with the boss. Players talk through the strategy, choose actions to take, roleplay the interactions between organizers and workers and cap it off with a dice roll to bring the randomness of chance into the outcome.

What direction can the labor movement go in to start winning?

Labor has been most successful when it engages in movement-building organizing. Private sector organizing rose to nearly a third of counted labor after decades of agitation. Those organizers had the benefit of a centralized supply chain and workforce (things global trade and the gig economy demolishes). They also spoke of revolutionary changes to the foundation of capitalism at a large scale. The last big breakthrough happened with the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the wall to wall organizing that they engaged in. So, today’s labor movement needs to engage in audacious, industry defining fights in order to survive.

Are major labor unions capable of this turn, or does it need to be ground-up, revolutionary unions?

The challenge with that call to action is that too few organizers or organizations have the skills or institutional knowledge to see these fights through to fruition. What I hope happens with Beat the Boss is that in living rooms and dorm rooms across the country enough experimentation happens so that some good strategy emerges.

I’ve approached activism and social change from a spectrum. Such that while my assessment of political potential may land in the left-ish side I appreciate and understand the need for more radical positions to exist. In order for workers to win justice both established labor unions, radical rank and file members and revolutionary unions need to push for change. The working class needs a wide variety of thought and resources to achieve equality.

Filmmaker and author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. His work is featured at Jacobin, In These Times, Salon, Truthout, etc. @Shane_Burley1

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