Beat the Boss: An interview with Doug Geisler

Hi Doug, thanks for talking to us today. You are the creator of Beat the Boss, a TTRPG about union organising. You’re also a union organiser yourself. Can you tell us a bit about your background? What first drew you to organising?

I started organizing in 2001. I had gone to the World Trade Organization protest in Seattle, which is a short drive for me. The labor unions that showed up on the front line really made a significant impact on me. I was with this group of ten folks that were holding down an intersection, and the steel workers broke away from the big AFL-CIO march and pushed the cops back a block. Just physically confronted them. It was like nothing that I’d experienced before. 

After the protests, I wanted to figure out a way to get more actively engaged in making big changes. I was looking around, and it was clear that labor unions were one big, structured way to make an impact. 

That’s an interesting answer. You were kind of thinking of unions as agents of broad social change right from the start.

Well, changing the material conditions of workers became kind of a guiding orientation for me. For example, there’s not enough leisure time in industrialized America for people to even appreciate the woods or the outdoors. So how are you going to have a conversation with someone about environmental protection, if they don’t have any experience of nature in their everyday lives?

After the WTO protests, what was next?

I started working with the Service Employees International Union. My first campaign was house-visiting home care workers. Oregon was working on organizing the state’s home care workers, I think about 13,000 workers at the time. Not hospice, more people that assist with activities of daily living. They’ll help with cooking and laying out meds and those sort of things, and tidying up around the house. So there was plenty of opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with them. 

From there, I got moved into different industries within the SEIU. So I had an opportunity to work with public sector workers in LA, security guards in the Bay Area, hospital workers in Iowa. I moved around the West Coast largely, and got to see a lot of different industries over that time.

Can you introduce Beat the Boss to us?

Beat the Boss is an opportunity to simulate what it’s like to be an organizer and help workers to get unionized. At its heart, it offers a framework for a collaborative narrative of a certain kind. With a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, the characters you build and the rules you are given support storytelling about being heroes in a fantasy world. With Beat the Boss, a campaign can run through the life of an organizing drive, from the first contact that a worker makes with the organization, all the way through ratifying a contract.

It seems to me like one of those TTRPGs that could accommodate a whole variety of play styles. Is that fair?

The mechanics definitely let you approach it an a very war gamey level, if that’s how you want to play. You’re working out tactics and figuring out how to string them together to make the strategy that will move an employer.

But it can also be used to tell interpersonal stories too. Stories about what it’s like to be an organizer in a remote city that’s not your home, where you have to make do and have those social relationships that are birthed from working in tight proximity with a small group of workers.

Games offer us models of the world. They imply certain claims about how the world works, and about theories about how to change the world. How did you approach the model-making aspect of Beat the Boss?

My degree was in anthropology. And when I was about ready to graduate, I started getting interested in applied anthropology, which is really looking at the culture of a group and using that culture to maneuver it into a different outcome. When you compare one workplace to another, or one industry to another, you find similarities. They’re not carbon copies, but there’s similarities as to how workers behave and how the management has structured it. So coming to industrial organizing from anthropology gave me a great framework. I could see those patterns, see those behaviors, and I think I brought that into the game design too.

Were there any simplifications which you wrestled over? Were there any aspects of organizing that you felt were really challenging to gamify?

So two things come to mind. One is that some roleplaying games have been criticised for lending themselves to railroading. They’re very linear. As a player, you feel like you’re on a railroad, your story is going to end in one place. 

That can be an issue with a style of Game Mastering, or with the actual game system itself, I guess. But then again, does it have to be an issue? Players may like to feel like they are free to do anything at any moment. But at the same time, there can definitely be a dynamic where players know that the most interesting gameplay lies within narrow parameters, and they’re constantly sussing out where they’re supposed to go to progress the storyline.

In some ways, an organizing drive has certain pattern to it, certain beats that end in an outcome. There is variation, but there is a kind of linearity too. There’s another game called Night Witches that Jason Morningstar put out. Night Witches tells a story of Russian bomber women that flew biplanes over the German front in World War II and hand-dropped bombs out of their planes. In many ways that’s a linear story too, because there’s a historical track record of where this regiment of women went. So yes, that was one thing that was challenging to figure out: how to actually tell a linear-ish story that allowed for flexibility in an outcome. 

What about the second thing?

The other thing was to figure out how to mechanically represent the boss work, whatever the bosses do to try and stop workers from organizing. And I ended up solving that by just throwing cash at it. Mechanically, if you’re playing as the Game Master you play the boss for that round. And once you know that there’s an organizing drive happening, you can spend money to erode the level of support. 

I can see why you might simplify the boss’s behaviour, to keep the spotlight on the workers. And of course it reflects the asymmetry of the struggle. Amazon spends millions on anti-union consultants. Sure, it’s about the labour of the bosses vs. the labour of the organizers and workers. But more fundamentally, it’s about capital vs. labour. 

Yeah, I landed at a kind of an elegant, simplified way of reflecting those complexities. I mean, it was a challenge to come up. But in both my organizing and in my game design, I usually want to go for the most elegant solution, rather than building a house of cards, with all this unnecessary complexity, prone to fall apart.

The way it works, you have something you can do in the morning, something you can do in the afternoon or night. In reality, your days as an organizer could run twelve hours long. But I wanted to simplify, just like you have this thing to do in the beginning of the day, and thing to do in the back half of the day.

When you simplify the boss work, do you risk playing into that myth of managing as a kind of abstract, universal skill that can be applied to any industry? A kind of economic reductivism? Or business school reductivism, I guess?

I mean, I do think there are management skills that can be used in multiple different industries. And there are various styles of management, so it’s not just this one static thing. As a manager, you can steal elements from other contexts to be a more effective supervisor or manager.


You can look at a football team coach, and how they  individually work with a player, and there might be things there applicable to a very different context. But yeah, to be able to innovate, as a good manager, you need to know the ins and outs of the specific industry you’re working in.

For boss behaviour in a union busting context, there really is one playbook that is used. The same anti-union messages that Amazon uses are showing up at local grocery stores, fast food restaurants and nursing homes. That uniformity plays into the abstraction of a roleplaying game.

That is interesting. I guess what I’m getting at is how a worker sees a job, versus how their manager sees that job. Workers may not necessarily be able to express all their know-how, all their tacit knowledge. At least not in the language managers can understand. So you can come into conflict with higher-up people because they’re putting constraints and demands on you, and those constraints and demands don’t fit with what you know you need to do to get the job done.

Okay, yeah. In anthropology, there’s emic and etic method of analyzing those relationships. Emic is basically the insider’s perspective. Etic imposes standards and frameworks from the outside. In industry, the management may all be trained in a centralized location throughout an industry. So they get into a habit, and when they go to all these different firms, they impose a sort of etic way of structuring the work, which has implications to the behavior of the workers.

That’s a really interesting way of thinking about it. So are there any other aspects of organising that you feel haven’t made it into the game, but it would be nice if they could? Where you feel like you didn’t hit upon the right elegant abstraction?

Another abstraction is that the game is struggling over how much support there is for organizing. So the boss can spend money to erode support, and the organizers go out and have one-on-one conversations, or they develop leaders to have those conversations to increase support. So throughout the whole of the game, it’s just a balancing act. How you you get ahead of the boss’s work?

Then there’s the actual character roleplaying part of it, where the players are having those conversations. You never know exactly how somebody’s going to react or what the consequences will be, or what conversations people are going to be having in the meanwhile. There’s no way to 100% control what workers do. So that was one system that I was not able to really 100% crack. I rely on a narrative Powered by the Apocalypse dice system, that yields sort of mixed outcomes for the most part. A workplace might be like two hundred people, a thousand people. There’s no way to 100% model all those people in a roleplaying game. That is why games use dice to randomise results.

There’s no way of modeling that, but tabletop roleplaying games do have this kind of openness. You are ultimately telling stories. Can you tell us a little bit more about Beat the Boss in action? Was there anything that surprised you?

There were some folks who would rely on one thing all the time. If I need to flyer or I need to help workers taking action, I’m going to rely on one stat, and just keep hammering that. If I need to go move somebody, I’m going to rely on this one thing.  And there’s a lesson in that for players. If an organizer just relies on that one thing over and over again, there are going to come times when it totally fails.


Then there was a supervisor of mine that actually tried to apply all of the worst practices for organizing to see how things would turn out. And it immediately failed because they’re the worst practices.

I guess the system passes the test! What did he do?

So he took the opportunity to make up big flyers and stand in the parking lot and hand out flyers at shift change. In the game, he failed on the dice roll, so he didn’t talk to anybody, and the supervisor saw him. So a manager of the workplace saw him standing out there with flyers, and immediately started the anti-union campaign.

So that’s worse than just doing nothing at all?

Oh yeah. There’s a time to do that, and there’s a time to not do that. And in American organizing, best practice is about building underground as long as possible, so that management does not know about it. As soon as management knows about it, they launch into the scale of their anti-union campaign.

And the bosses are completely taken by surprise. It’s not part of my experience at all. I think everywhere I’ve worked has had some kind of union, or at least I’ve been a member of Unite, which is one of the two big ones here in the UK. Sometimes union membership has been pretty low, but there’s always been one. I’ve really only seen it on American shows, where suddenly all the workers in a workplace stand up and say, “We’ve been organizing.”

Well, yeah, if you’re in a non-union workplace in America, you need to get recognition. You need to get a majority of votes and meet a participation threshold. There are many cards stacked against you, and the game reflects that.

You can’t have a small group of workers who are unionized. You need that majority, and that participation threshold, to even have a union in the first place. So how often does the game allow for failure? How often does the management win I guess?

Most of the time.

Wait — most of the time?

In reality, under 10% of organizing drives move forward to the point of workers getting recognition. 

I get Trophy Dark vibes. Tales of doomed adventurers.

Not doomed necessarily. But those stories that are going around about the Amazon workers, just one out of those that went to election was won. And then there’s not even a discussion about the number that didn’t even go to an election. That’s not newsworthy, to say workers here never opted to try.

So Beat the Boss ends when either the union is recognized, or the campaign fails?

Well, I’m going to be putting out a new edition of this book, which will go all the way through ratification of a contract.

Okay, cool. Great to hear that you’re working on a new edition as well. Is there a silver lining to all those failed campaigns — that sometimes the tactics that the management will take, will actually improve the material conditions for the workers, even if it’s not gaining formal power for the workers?

Yeah, yeah. There’s an anti-union employer here in Oregon, in the industry that we organize that paid workers — I think it was $5 above what our pay scale was. And those workers subsequently don’t want to talk about organizing.

You can’t quite chalk it up as a win. But you can chalk it up as something.

Yeah, it is a win for those workers. Their material condition changed. There are also stories of organizers in other locals that I’ve met, that the workers lost their recognition attempt. They did not move forward to go to negotiations or anything like that. But the people on the organizing committee, those workers, they found a new strength and a new level of character and a new level of drive. They dramatically changed the conditions of their life. They left abusive relationships, they took kids and left the house. They got off drugs, they changed their conditions because of the effort of trying to organize. So even with a loss, you can win.

Work can be so degrading and disempowering. Finding agency in that context can help you find agency in other contexts as well.


Let’s talk then about character creation in Beat the Boss. So first you choose your tendency. What’s a tendency?

The tendencies come from the habits or patterns that I’ve seen in organizers. Sometimes organizers come in, and their whole experience has been in community organizing, and they have a certain approach to a group of workers. Or there’s a political organizer, who is very effective at moving votes, but maybe not so effective at long-term relationships with people. There is the pragmatic labor organizer that has the experience of organizing their own workplace but can be inflexible. There is a tendency to act as a social servicer that first tries to solve the worker’s problems before building power. I’ve worked with anarchists and eco-activists that are more familiar with taking direct action. And there is the tendency to act as an apparatchik that prioritizes the union institution over the individual worker. 

Then you choose your role. That’s pretty self-explanatory.

Sure. There’s going to be a bunch of organizers and they kind of divide their work up. If you’re a new organizer coming into a campaign, it might be, “Hey, we need someone to make flyers and do data work.”

And then there are these stats and levels of experience. What are the implications of playing a version of yourself versus playing an imaginary character?

I think there’s a liberty that comes from playing an imaginary character, and the liberty that comes from a fictional story that allows you to step outside of your current relationships with the people that you’re playing with. It allows you to step out a little bit out from under of the moral weight of organizing workers. These are fantastical workers, these are imaginary workers. So you don’t have the weight of responsibility for fucking up their campaign.

The stats allow for a balanced measure of strengths and weaknesses. There are four: vigour (a measure of stamina to work long days), smarts (sharpness of mind), empathy (measures a perception of emotion and the capacity to show it) and moxie (reflects personal courage and determination). 

I’m interested in how this game — which creates fictions — encodes your own direct experience. This isn’t a game by somebody who just thought this was an interesting topic. You seem to be just the right person to have created this game! But then what happens when other people play that game without you present? When people play it in different contexts, play it with perhaps different attitudes and goals? Do you worry about how things might get lost in translation as you let the game go out into the world? 

Well, there’s certainly that possibility that people are going to misunderstand something. But I have role-played since I was in high school, and I’ve got enough under my belt about roleplaying games to know how to phrase things to get to a realistic outcome in a fiction. Realistic in a fiction, so there’s a little irony there. In the case of the core book, and the first campaign that I put out on DriveThruRPG, there are prompt questions in each stage that reflect my experience in the field. There are opportunities for the GM to ask leading questions, to steer the narrative in a particular direction. 

There will be things that happen in a game which go beyond my specific experiences. But there is enough there that the fiction will be drawing on those experiences, so that players get the opportunity to feel or emotionally react to the conditions that I’ve seen over twenty years plus of organizing. 

As far as letting go of a heartbreaker project goes, that’s not something I worry about. I call games like these a heartbreaker, because people pour their heart into them and they end up on a shelf somewhere, but no one ever plays them. If anybody picks up this game and they get some insight in how to organize their workplace, that’s thumbs up, right? That’s like, ‘job done.’

Yeah. That makes sense. I’ve heard the term ‘fantasy heartbreaker,’ which I think Ron Edwards coined. He uses it to refer to these games which are really impressive, detailed, joyful creations, but just don’t fundamentally move very far from D&D, because that’s the only TTRPG the designer really knows. I wrote one, I think, called Dungeons & Drapers. Is D&D an influence for you? Do you have other influences?

So I’ve played D&D and d20 System games. Star Wars, there’s a couple different versions of the Star Wars game. There’s a World of Darkness games with Mage and Vampire and Werewolf. That’s a real storytelling-focused system, where there’s a lot more emotion brought to it and a lot less war gaming elements. Those are influential on me.

There’s clearly a PbtA influence too, right?

The Powered by the Apocalypse system has thrown open a lot of different genre opportunities. It just uses two six-sided dice, and the usual mechanic has three possible outcomes — success, failure, or mixed. In the Powered by the Apocalypse mechanic, a seven to nine succeeds, but there’s a cost. With 2d6, and maybe a +1 bonus, seven to nine is an extremely common roll. So the end result of many situations where dice would be called on is going to be mixed.  That’s why I picked this system. A, it was easy to pick up for most players. It’s not going to be an overcomplex system where you have movement measurements and different damages and stuff for whatever kind of weapon, or a rule for everything like some games have. And B, it gives you those mixed outcomes, that drive the narrative in interesting ways.

The first time I came across a PbtA game, which was Apocalypse World, it really just made me want to design a game. It had that magic effect on me. There seems to be an urge to create games that often goes beyond the stated justifications of the designers. It isn’t a commercial urge. It might not even be an artistic urge in any familiar sense. 

Often a game designers know they can’t be assured of an audience for a game. A designer who is creating a fantasy heartbreaker knows full well that they’re creating a slightly-tinkered with version of something that’s really well-established and already has players. And yet, we are drawn to building these systems.

Actually, Beat the Boss is not like that at all — it is really distinctive in its theme and its strength of purpose. But I do wonder what you think about that desire that seems to be so prevalent, to create these systems?

Well, Free League publish Aliens and Vaesen, using very similar core system, but they’re tacking on extra elements to reinforce different kinds of experience. Modiphius, I guess, use a core system of multiple d20s, but then they add in elements and build out rules, and suddenly you’ve got Conan and Star Trek and Dune. That’s really what kind of drove me to do this. And I imagine other people are following that same piper, to want to be able to create conditions for an outcome, an experience. 

Early on when I first started with role-playing, I played around doing homebrew worlds and adventures. I think there’s two kinds of homebrew. One is where you’re home-brewing guided by someone else’s world and the stories you want to tell. Then there’s another kind of game, which is more about creating the conditions in which certain stories or experiences become possible. Some game designers are building for that ideal. That’s where I ended up with with Beat the Boss.

Game publishers recognise that too. They know that players don’t just want to play their games, they want to build on them. So for example Free League make their Year Zero rules available with System Reference Documents, open licenses, and so on. The new edition of Beat the Boss I’m working on, that includes a complete campaign, with material on how to modify it for your own purposes.

It’s interesting you say “creating the conditions in which.” It’s interesting given the theme of your game, and where we began this conversation, with unions as drivers of broad and deep social change. Are there other games or related resources that you’d recommend either as useful for organizing and activism, or just interesting in the way that they approach work, community, power?

I’ve read my histories of the labor movement: Jeremy Brecher and Boyer and Morais, Labor’s Untold Story. I am influenced by C. Wright Mills’s sociological work. The industrial area organizing of Alinsky and Gordon Whitman. I originally came to organizing through Emma Goldman, Anton Pannekoek and the Industrial Workers of the World.  Recently I’ve started dipping into reading more about anarchist education. I’m reading this book, Anarchist Pedagogies, and learning about Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. Because this game really stands in the space between entertainment and education. 

And not just any education. Education linked with emancipation. 

Yeah, there’s opportunities to take this and work with other organizers about how to improve their tactical sense, and really go through practicing those conversations with workers. So I’m reading about anarchist education to get elements of that pedagogy, to see how they can apply and track into this game.

What I’m realizing is that there’s this debate around how structured education should be, and at what level the educator should be also a participant in the learning that’s going on with the whole audience. A roleplaying game really is well situated for that. The GM is also improvising and coming up with a story, and the characters, and learning about better ways to discuss things, at the same time as the players are learning about better ways to have one-on-one conversations and implement tactics.

It is intriguing to think about how GM and educator overlap. Railroading, which you mentioned earlier — it feels similar to the kind of hierarchical instruction that Freire criticises.

A great example is this game I was playing in, where we couldn’t leave the path in the forest. I’ve been in forests, and I can walk around trees, and I can get off of the path. But I was not able to get off of the path in the forest and I was headed to one destination. 

In the campaign for an organizing drive for Beat the Boss, there’s a skeleton. And the narrative for each individual player can vary widely. Their interpersonal relationships can vary widely. Their potential outcome based on dice roles can change. So there’s structure as well as openness to creativity.

There are games which have a GM, but require players to bring more creativity and agency than the D&D sort of game, where the GM is the holder of all storied elements, and the players are limited to controlling their characters. Those games where the player has to meet the GM in creating that story is a very powerful way of interacting. And there are those games that don’t have a GM at all.

Of course, nothing is simple. Being constrained in some ways is what empowers you in other ways. If you try to use Beat the Boss to tell stories that are too far from its core, you will feel the system start to resist you, or abandon you. 

Beat the Boss is very much set in our world. But the interview we’re doing now is both for Vector and Utopia on the Tabletop, which have plenty to do with speculative and fantastical games, literature and culture. Is science fiction something you are interested in?

Sure, I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick. I like Stephen King. And it seems that a lot of my favorite authors have issues outside of the work. The Cthulhu mythos is great, although H.P. Lovecraft was a total racist. So you got to read that with a very critical eye. 

There’s been a bit of a cool wave recently reclaiming Lovecraft from racism, or reclaiming cosmic horror from racism. I feel like I’ve seen a bunch of Lovecraft-inspired stories and anthologies recently. Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Jonathan L. Howard, Nick Mamatas. There’s Lovecraft Country, the TV show.

Yeah, I think about half of these shelves behind me are Stephen King, and there’s Philip K. Dick up there. Some Star Wars stuff. It helps to recharge the imagination to be able to watch and read some of those things to get alternative realities, especially for roleplaying.

What does the term ‘post-work’ mean to you, if anything? Have you come across it? 

It’s not a term that makes much sense to me. Is this in reference to the gig economy?  If it is related to the gig economy, that’s really just a reframing of the cottage industry that happened pre-industrialization. People were doing things in their homes, they were taking in laundry, they were tailoring, they were doing all kinds of piece work. Gig economy is no different than that.

I’ve definitely heard it linked with that hustle culture, gig economy, “you never need a job, you just need a passion” kind of propaganda. The end of the workplace, the end of jobs, enabled through labour-linking digital platforms. It’s kind of an unfair question, because I think it is quite a polysemic term. I wanted to ask you about it raw because I’m interested in how people see this term right now, what they associate it with.

There is also another body of writing and thinking around the term. That’s to do with organizing for fewer hours, for better worker rights, for more real autonomy over when and how you work. I think Kathi Weeks writes really wonderfully about it.  And then some of that starts to shade into things like UBI, and even these fully-automated luxury automation imaginaries. I always think the most interesting ideas tend to have the absolute worst names.

Well, I mean, if we could get into a utopian structure where there’s 3D printers that can print basic necessities, then maybe it gets a little easier. But someone’s still going to have to make and maintain those 3D printers. Someone’s still going to try and profit off those necessities.

They strike me a little bit like Alan Greenspan, the US economist, who was shocked after the 2008 economic crisis that greed played a part in the economy. He got on the mic to the public and said something that effect — that he’d been looking at the economy in the wrong way for all these years, and it was a huge shock to him that markets couldn’t just self-regulate.

To be a public figure who studies the economy, and to be that naive? You’re either totally lying to everyone, or you have this kind of utopian conviction somewhere in your thinking. So evangelists for post-work structures remind me of that a little. They don’t realize that they’re going to be exploited in some way. 

I think that dovetails with critiques I’ve come across, that essentially say post-work is a nice idea, but it goes hand-in-hand with degrading the power of the labour movement. 


So say we get everything just perfect — the automation, the Universal Basic Income, the Universal Basic Services, all that stuff — one upshot is that workers are no longer able to cause mass disruptions any more. Then, as you say, what new angles for exploitation arise? 

Even in circumstances like that, there’s going to be somebody who wants to reap the excess. I’m a realist. Maybe ‘realist’ is unfair, but I’m a little cynical about these schemes.

I guess post-work advocates will say that’s why you focus on the next step, while keeping the long-term dream alive. Maybe you try to anticipate the new forms of exploitation too. Is there a version of post-work that preserves worker power?  

It makes me think of this excellent episode of The Orville, where the Earth had given replicators to this other planet. But they didn’t have the social change that led up to these replicators being available on Earth. They had the technology, but not the social norms around that technology. So they destroyed their planet in just a few years. It’s implied they’re probably fighting over these advanced technologies.

As though they were scarce resources? That’s funny.

Something like that. Then there’s a visitor on the ship, from another planet, who wants her planet to enjoy the peace and prosperity of this future utopian society. To talk her out of it, they go to their illusion booth or whatever it is. They show her a representation of what this other planet currently looks like, all blasted and destroyed and irradiated, because there wasn’t a social revolution that came with a technological revolution. The lesson is that when the equitable social relations are achieved, the technology will emerge to serve everyone’s needs. It won’t work the other way round.

I mean, I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it sounds a little reminiscent of neocolonial development discourse — “hey, Global South countries, there is one true path to the future, you can’t leapfrog or create your own path.” On the other hand, I am super into putting social relations, not technology, at the centre of post-scarcity science fiction. 

I mean, being the cynical person I am, that’s what I imagine would happen if we got to a totally automated place. There would be a lot of people without pay. I can’t see there being sufficient UBI or guaranteed wages for everybody. If we’re going to automate a bunch of things, then the price should go down for a lot of things. Except inflation and the cost of goods aren’t really driven by production costs, capitalism exists to collect wealth at the top. It is in the interests of economic elites to keep the prices up, to keep things scarce. So people will be put out of work, and the prices aren’t going to drop. What I imagine is starvation.

It’s really interesting to think what the correlates of things like guaranteed wages, guaranteed job security might be in those sorts of post-work futures. Maybe there hasn’t been enough thinking along those lines. Sticking with the theme of speculation, and thinking about the futures, let’s bring it back to Beat the Boss. 

There can be times when a union sustains oppressive conditions, rather than transforming them. Or it could be doing both at once in different ways. So when a workplace begins to organize, are there things should be done from the start to ensure long-term participatory democratic non-oppressive character of what is being built? Or is it “we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them”? How do you think about that, both as an organizer and as a game designer?

I mean, there is the Apparatchik tendency in the game. This is based on a habit of some organizers that are far more concerned with the organization, rather than the workers that they’re trying to work with. Of course there are realities in an organization, like budget and internal politics. So I’m not being Pollyanna, or looking through rose-colored glasses, when it comes to the survival and effectiveness of a union. 

It’s not like the Apparatchik tendency makes you a villain in the game, or anything. If you pressed the Apparatchik, they would probably argue that prioritising the organisation is the best way to serve the workers’ in the longer term. So maybe it reflects some of that complexity, and some legitimate disagreement about best practice?

As far as best practices, I think it comes down to how honest organizers are with workers about what it takes to win. The conflict in a unionized workplace — and ‘conflict’ is maybe doing a lot of work in that sentence — is between the power of the boss, and the power that the workers actually have by the fact that they do all the work. So an organizer who says to workers, “If you fill out this card, you’ll get a raise,” is lying to them. It may be the easier message to sell, but it’s not the whole story. Because it’s more than just filling out a card. It’s that they have to exercise their power all the time. And that may sound daunting. So organizers are very likely to either negotiate against themselves, or to undersell what it takes for workers to actually have the power to succeed. 

Right. That’s the trade-off. That’s very interesting.

And that goes all the way through. It goes through the organizing, and getting recognized, and the union that they will eventually make an institution. If workers come in with the wrong conception of what it takes to beat their boss and really win, they’re going to create a service model, where they expect the union organizers to be like insurance agents, that will solve their claim and get them whatever they need.

That service model is also presumably more vulnerable to union leaders who get too cozy with the management.

Well, it’s part of the reason why in the 1980s that Reagan and Thatcher were able to undermine the labor movement so effectively and quickly. Against the Cold War background, there were these real threats to the autonomy of the labor movement. Labor movement leaders, like the Reuther brothers, aligned themselves very closely with Lyndon Baines Johnson. And LBJ recuperated them as an independent organization. The United Auto Workers just got absorbed into LBJ’s universe. So historically, there’s elements about how the labor movement has been undermined and weakened and fallen into that service model. 

So the alternative to the service model, that’s when workers accept that there is an ongoing conflict. It’s a conflict where your enemy might be respectful and honourable, or they might not be, but it’s a conflict. It is structural in nature — maybe you like your boss on a personal level, or whatever, but the structures are still there. Being a union member is about taking your rightful place within that conflict. It’s not about making a purchase. That’s something you’re interested in making clear from the start.

The two different models that exist right now, there’s the service model and there’s the organizing model. The service model is this business unionism where you, as a member, view the leadership of the union as some sort of third party. Almost like another boss, but one that’s going to get you benefits, or do this thing for you. If you pay your dues, then you have the thing. 

An organizing model is honest with workers that they are the ones that have to make all the decisions and do all the hard work to get what they want. And when we don’t present that choice (to act or not) to them and let a worker sit with that and make their decision, organizers are really tying themselves to a service model. They’re shackling their feet in the effort to be able to walk with the labor movement. They’re never going to be able to make those big strides, if they’re not honest with workers and telling them what it takes.

Is size part of it too? It seems like there’s strength in numbers, but that also comes with a downside. The bigger it is, the more mediated it is. The bigger it is, the more you need representation, the less personal and participatory it is. 

Right. The pyramid can get overly sharp, with too much distance between the leaders and the base. The US government has the same issue. We have representatives and senators that get elected, and voters start thinking that their work of changing their community is done as soon as they cast a ballot. And then they just have someone distant to blame, that is not related to them at all. It makes a big shift in electoral politics if you feel like you have a constant obligation to interact with your representatives. If I want to see shit change, I have to go be present or some way communicate with those people that I have an opinion about it, and I’m going to hold them accountable for not following my opinion.

Similarly, there are surely leaders of labor unions that are very happy to have a disconnected base. If you end up with that, that is going to be a negative, more difficult to win, result. It’s really on organizers and workers to prevent that from happening, or to reverse it if it does start to happen. That’s one reason we have to be educators, who support workers that don’t really have much experience of a labor movement, and educate them about what it takes to win.

What are your future plans for Beat the Boss?

So I’m working to complete that campaign that’s going to be for a nursing home — old folks’ home, retirement home, however they’re called in the rest of the world. 

In the UK we have nursing homes or residential care homes, depending on whether there’s medical care provided on-site, basically.

In America they’re skilled nursing facilities, for people that are either leaving hospital or they’re at the end of their life. The campaign is open on my computer right now, which is why I’m thinking about it. I’ll be doing one of those disclaimers, that I made up a whole bunch of people.  And also talk about localizations, about how it might be adapted into different campaigns.

Would that be for different industries too?

Right. I don’t really have the capacity to continue to write campaigns for Beat the Boss  in different industries. Also, I’m not super familiar with different industries outside of the ones that Service Employees International Union represents, so it wouldn’t be very informative or educational if I create a campaign about organizing carpenters.

But you’d like it if organizers or workers with that industry experience created their own versions. And if they don’t have the experience of game design, you’ve given them a whole framework to get started with.

Sure, I’m building in ways for people to pick up this new edition, and write their own campaigns. There needs to be a structure to it. Structure that allows improvisation within it, that’s really what a campaign is. 

There’s also this new direction within organizing to strike for recognition. Not really a new direction, more like reviving an old direction. The campaign that I wrote goes through the legalistic National Labor Relations Board route. But there’s every possibility that a group of workers and organizers could come to the conclusion that the boss is not going to allow for a fair election. And then the best way to go, if you have the majority’s will to do it, is to go on strike and demand recognition.

Even without the legal protections you’d get with a union.

Yeah, I mean it’s very risky, but it’s also high reward. Because if you go into negotiations having successfully struck for recognition, your demands can start at a much higher place.

It also just feels so exciting. We’ve been striking quite a bit in Higher Education in the UK, and sometimes it has a really weird feeling. It’s like we’re breaking rules, but there are all these rules about how to break the rules.

Yeah. Well, Thatcher did a great job of limiting what kind of disruptions organized workers could do, right? And the duration that you’re able to strike. 

I don’t know whether New Labour softened any of that? — I mean, quite possibly not. But definitely since I’ve been working, just a few years ago there was the Trade Unions Act that brought in a bunch of new restrictions. And there is some really serious anti-strike stuff that is being proposed right now. The direction of travel is to squeeze and squeeze what unions can lawfully do. 

When I went on vacation in 2004 in Marseille and Montpellier, a bus driver had been attacked. So the workers just went on strike for the day. 

France often seems to be inspirational.

Me and a bunch of people trying to get around, and we just had to walk.

Right. That’s power. When I don’t show up for a lecture, it doesn’t feel like it has this quite the same impact.

Depends on if you organize the students along.

Yeah, good point. The students in my experience have always been very supportive, at Edinburgh, at Leicester, at Sussex. There have been occupations in solidarity, and so on. But it does feel hard to sustain that solidarity when the strike is over. Obviously the students tend to care about the bigger picture — about education, about justice, about decolonisation, about fighting racism and misogyny, and what the neoliberal university does to the mental health of workers and students. That’s what the staff care about too, but it can be quite hard to square it with, like, weeks spent negotiating these technical details of our pensions scheme. It’s harder to build solidarity around pensions than around anti-racism.

You see this a lot in campaigns, that one issue can be the one that is unifying while you’re still talking about other issues. You’re still campaigning about other issues, but there’s the one that is unifying that is the vocal one. The rail workers in America, their message is, “We are not getting sick days.” I’m sure there’s other things on the table in their negotiations, but they’re talking about sick days. Hospital workers will talk about respect for women nurses, and have women spokespeople and talk about respect for their work, compared to what they’re paid. There’s other things on the table, but they’re talking about respect because it’s a unifying campaign item.

That is really interesting. You can have a big abstract demand or idea that, logically speaking, ‘contains’ all those other issues — maybe something like utopia, or post-work. But sometimes it might actually be some specific issue, in the middle of that mess of issues, that carries them along with it more effectively. I think that’s a great place to end it. Doug, thank you so much!

Thanks for having me.

This article will be included in the forthcoming collection Utopia on the Tabletop (Ping Press). Thanks to the British Science Fiction Association, the Sussex Humanities Lab (Open Practice Group), and the University of Sussex School of Media, Arts and Humanities.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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