Back when she was in high school, Melanie’s dad was a boilermaker. She remembered the week he was elected as union delegate for his workplace and came home with a box full of OHS violations that he was going to take to the foreman. Melanie could probably fill a box like that in a day at the Magnus Institute.
And it wasn’t like she was at risk of being fired if she started putting up flyers and taking names. Who knows, maybe she’d land Elias in court for something. Tie him up in some red tape for a little while. After a particularly gruelling day of research, one where she had almost fallen from the twelfth story of a bank, Melanie decides she may as well call her representative. She had joined UNISON on her first day at the Archives, after an hour of being passed around various unions as they all tried to work out what exactly an archival assistant was. The woman on the other end of the phone is horrified at the stories that Melanie shares, and she hadn’t even gotten to the complaints that involved mortal danger. She emails Melanie an organising instruction pack and promises that someone would be in touch within the week.
On Wednesday, Melanie spends the day putting up posters in break rooms and sending out staff-wide emails urging people to join the union. Thursday is spent barging into various offices and having impromptu meetings. She has a surprisingly wonderful afternoon with Rosie, the receptionist, who has apparently been the only other union member for several years.
When Rosie hangs up on Elias for the third time, Melanie has to ask. “How haven’t you been fired yet?” It’s half a genuine question, and half a subtle way of working out if the rest of the Institute has the same infernal job security as the Archives.
Rosie urges another scone into Melanie’s hands. “Bouchard knows if he fired me, he’d have a literal riot on his hands.” She pronounces his name so it rhymes with ‘orchard’, and the twist to her lips lets Melanie know that it is nothing less than deliberate provocation.
Melanie takes a thoughtful bite of the scone. It’s divine. “I can see that.”
By Friday, they have signed up another twenty people as members, and are well on their way to having a proper meeting the following week. It doesn’t quell the rage, exactly. She still digs her nails into her palms as she walks, still snaps at a man who bumps into her in the freezer section of Greggs, but she has direction. She has a goal. And when she achieves that goal, well. No-one ever remembered a peaceful picket.
Melanie sets up a desk next to Rosie’s, handing out membership forms to people as they walk in on Monday morning. Rosie hands her a small bowl of lollipops, and Melanie isn’t the only person who appreciates the sugar after the weekend. It’s the most people she’s talked to since starting to work in the Archives. At some point, Jon emerges from the basement, his thumb rubbing anxiously over the metal cap of his lighter.
“Melanie,” He startles a little upon seeing her. “I didn’t see you come in.”
By this point, it is nearing 11:30, which means that Jon must have slept in the Archives overnight, if not all weekend. She wonders if he gets overtime. It’s not that she cares about Jon particularly, but it would be an interesting battle to fight.
She waves a yellow leaflet at him. “Organising.”
“Ah.” Jon responds, his tone haughty. She is immediately reminded that he studied at Oxford.
“You got something against unionism, Jon?” Melanie levels him with a powerful glare. “Not the first scab in management, I guess.”
Jon makes an affronted noise at that, flicking the lid of the light open completely. “I’m not a scab, Melanie. I just… Look, do you think that it’s wise?”
She rolls her eyes. “What, you think we should lobby Elias instead? Ask nicely? Work hard and hope for a raise?”
Jon grits his teeth. She loves when she gets a rise out of him like this. Initially, she thought that it was just the challenge of working out how to press his buttons, but even as practiced as she is, there’s something filling about Jon’s anger.
“You know that’s not what I meant.” he whispers, as if Rosie isn’t a half meter away. “I mean, is it wise to be antagonising Elias, of all people?”
Melanie sucks on her lollipop just to pull it out with an obnoxious pop. “You antagonise him all the time. I’m just suggesting we do it collectively.”
Jon sputters, trying to find some other way to protest, but he just snatches a membership form from her pile and marches out. He returns half an hour later, reeking of what must have been half a packet of cigarettes, and grabs another three forms before stomping back down to the basement.
Rosie helps them commandeer a meeting room on Thursday, and Melanie is full of anxious energy as she waits for her colleagues to gather. A union organiser has come along to assist them with their first meeting, and he seems impressed with the progress they’ve made in such a short amount of time. Granted, Melanie has essentially been doing union work full-time since she decided on this direction for her energy, but the organiser doesn’t have to know that.
Melanie gravitates towards the others from the Archives before the meeting begins in earnest. Something hangs over them all, a shroud that keeps them seperate from the rest of the Institute, no matter how much they try to integrate.
Tim claps Melanie on the back, and she bites back the urge to hiss at the unexpected contact. “Impressive work.”
She rolls her eyes and mutters a sarcastic “Thanks,” but she knows he’s right. She’s done good work.
“You haven’t gone for branch president?” he inquires. He’s putting noticeable effort to keep the ever-present hint of mockery out of his voice. Melanie appreciates the attempt at civility.
“Too much paperwork.” she says wryly. “Rosie’s up for it. That woman’s a machine when it comes to red tape.” Melanie grins, her incisors showing.
The organiser begins the meeting shortly after, and when it comes time to vote up the delegates and union branch committee, Melanie is unanimously declared the health and safety delegate. There is an ironic bent to her election, given her numerous attempts on Elias’s life, but it does seem to fit her role so far. They run through their rights as workers and as union members, and the organiser gives a surprisingly engaging presentation on collective bargaining. As the meeting is about to wrap up, they move to general business.
“Are there any workplace issues people would like to bring to the table?” Rosie asks, with the confidence of someone who has organised hundreds of official meetings.
“Yes, uh—” A young woman raises her hand, the other resting protectively over her rounded belly. Her voice is quiet, turning up at the end as if unsure if she is allowed to express an opinion. “I think… Um, I’m Yashaswini, I work in the library, and I think we need to think about the treatment of women in the Institute. I’ve looked, and maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but there aren’t any breastfeeding locations in the entire building.” People nod along with her, and by the time she has finished her sentence, Yashaswini sounds more confident. “I sent an email to management when I was first looking, and they asked why I couldn’t just use the bathrooms. And I wanted to ask them, ‘Do you give your children lunch in the toilet?’ Because that’s what they’re asking me to do.”
Several other women thrust their hands into the air, and Melanie feels her ever-present anger gain a sharper edge. She thinks about conversations — too few, too brief — with Sasha about being turned down for the role of Head Archivist; how it was obvious that it was because she was a woman, Jon wasn’t anywhere near qualified and he hadn’t even applied… Even without the countless other grievances that Melanie had against Elias Bouchard, that would have been enough for her to want to tear down the Institute and every rich prick in it.
Eventually, Melanie starts spending more time down in the Archives again. She misses Basira, and she finds she gets crabby if she doesn’t get to make fun of Jon for at least half an hour per day. She brings a tray of coffee down one morning, which earns her effusive thanks from Tim, who is nursing a seemingly torturous hangover.
Basira pushes some books to the side and pats the edge of her desk, so Melanie pulls herself up to sit on it.
“I have a union question for you.” Basira begins.
Melanie grins. “Shoot.”
“Okay, so you know how we have that mandatory holiday gift exchange?”
Melanie grimaces, nodding. She hated mandatory festivities. You couldn’t just force people to enjoy themselves, and certainly not at work.
“Yeah, well, it’s technically non-denominational, right, but it’s obviously not. Like, I don’t even have a holiday this time of year, and it’s not like Chanukah is just Jewish Christmas or whatever. Plus, Martin, didn’t get get Nativity socks last year?”
Martin looks up from where he is highlighting newspapers, startling at being addressed. “Uh, y- yeah! Yeah, it was so weird? Like, I looked up the company, they have dreidel socks. But no, I got the Jesus-y ones. And, uh,” He indicates his jumper, which reads ‘Happy Challah-Days’ in bright yellow text, “I don’t think I’m being very subtle? Also, Jon doesn’t eat halal anymore, but I know he’s also annoyed that they only ever have pork roast at the holiday party.” he explains, anger rising on his features.
Basira nods emphatically. “The illusion is pretty weak, I reckon we should do something about it. Is that a union kind of thing?”
Melanie feels a familiar bubble of energy growing in her gut. “Oh Basira, we’re going to rip that dumb gift exchange to shreds.”
Whenever Melanie leaves the archives, there is someone with a new concern or someone else interested in coming to the next meeting. Melanie is looking for books on occult taxidermy when one of the librarians, Eoin O’Sullivan, catches her.
“Hey, Melanie, can I talk to you about something?” he asks in a whisper.
It used to be that she never trusted a man asking her that question, but now she relishes it. It promised yet another piece of ammunition to fire at her soul-eating boss.
“Sure, Eoin, what’s up?”
Eoin’s brow furrows. Melanie hopes it isn’t because she’s forgotten how to use her library voice.
“I think… I think the director is being racist? To me?” Eoin stammers out.
Melanie bites her tongue. Maybe this conversation isn’t going to go the way she expected it to. Eoin was so pale that he probably glowed under blacklight.
Melanie tries to suppress her doubt as she asks, “Elias? What’s he done?”
Eoin sighs, leaning a little against the shelf. “Well, he writes my payslip out to Ian Sullivan, first of all.” Here, he spells the name, “I’ve told him that that’s not my name, that it’s never been my name, but I still need to get Rosie to correct it every time I do my taxes.”
Melanie nods. That’s… weird, for sure.
“And I usually wouldn’t have mentioned anything, right? Because maybe he forgot or something. But last time he came in the library he called me a dirty mick?” Eoin sounds as confused as Melanie feels. Elias has his odditites, but this is just downright abnormal. “He’s sent me emails telling me I need make sure to speak clearly, but no one’s ever had trouble with my accent before.”
Eoin’s from Dublin, and he’s lived in London for several years at least — Melanie can’t imagine anyone having an issue understanding him. “Can you send me copies of these emails?” she asks.
“Yeah. Yeah, of course. And, uh, can you talk to Lane, too? They said Elias asked them to keep an eye out for any suspicious activity from me. That I might be a, um, Fenian terrorist?”
“Jesus Christ,” Melanie breathes. She feels rage rising like a solid mass in her throat. “That man’s a piece of fucking work. I’m really sorry, Eoin, that’s totally unacceptable. The fucking nerve of him, honestly.”
Eoin shrugs, still confused. “Yeah, no, I’m not hurt by it or anything. More, I guess, if that’s what he’s been saying to me,” Eoin gestures to his face and his notable lack of melanin, “Then I don’t want to know what he’s been saying to other employees, y’know.”
Melanie nods. “Yeah, definitely. Thanks for telling me.” She claps Eoin on the shoulder. “I’ll start following this up, see if we can’t get you some discrimination pay or something.”
Eoin wishes her a good afternoon and heads back to work. Melanie continues rifling through the books to find whatever obscure text she was looking for, trying not to tear the spines as she searches.
Melanie has kicked down the door to Elias’ office so many times that the wood around the lock has splintered. She notes that down as another safety code violation, and kicks it open again.
“Hello, Melanie. I wish you wouldn’t do that.” he says, his eyes focused on Melanie with eery precision.
“It gets your attention, doesn’t it?” She has stopped bringing knives and rat poison with her to Elias’s office, instead carrying in pages of complaints and workplace safety legislation. Bringing a knife to arbitration meetings is bad practice for a delegate, but Melanie desperately wishes she had one with her now.
Elias ignores her, his attention instead flicking to the door, where Rosie is currently standing. “Afternoon, Rosie. You haven’t answered any of my several calls today.”
Rosie takes a seat across from Elias, making sure the pleats of her skirt are even. “I’ve been very busy.” she responds.
“What could have possibly been more important than doing your job?” Elias’ tone is steely. If Melanie was a weaker person, it would be intimidating, but she isn’t, so it’s not.
Rosie’s smile is cherubic. “Ignoring you.”
Elias closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath in. Melanie is practically bouncing on her heels with joy.
“Right.” he says finally, splaying his hands on the expensive wood of his desk. “What fabrications have you come to bother me with this time?”
“Nothing you haven’t seen before.” Melanie lays a paper on the table, practically vibrating with glee. “We’re just handing in our advance notice.”
“You can’t quit.” Elias reminds her, needlessly.
Experience has taught Melanie and Rosie how to effectively tag team such situations. They have a good-unionist bad-unionist dynamic that is just a bit faster than Elias can entirely keep up with, so Rosie dives in before Elias can fully understand the situation.
“You haven’t taken action on any of our demands, Mr. Bouchard.” Rosie notes, faux-sweet.
“We’ve gone through all the proper channels.” Melanie adds, with markedly less sweetness.
“Research still doesn’t have adequate heating, and you haven’t complied with regulations for compassionate leave.”
Elias presses down on the table with such force that the tips of his fingers go white. He retains his polite smile, but it is more obviously forced.
Melanie continues, righteous anger running like liquid metal under her skin. “Artefact Storage is still paid below minimum for employees of their specialised training, and the discrimination complaints are just growing by the day.”
“All right!” Elias shouts, and his frustration feeds something in Melanie, helps it grow. “What do you want?”
Rosie taps the paper on the table with a shiny red nail. “We’re just informing you of our intention to strike, Mr. Bouchard.” She speaks as if she is reprimanding a small child who has just thrown a tantrum. She hands him the pen that he keeps balanced on his desk. “Sign here and we’ll leave you be.”
Without looking at the paper, Elias scratches his signature into the paper, his fountain pen bleeding ink. Melanie snatches the paper up, flicking a small blob of wet ink onto the wood.
She grins, showing Elias all her teeth. “See you on the picket line, Mr. Bouchard.”
One day, Melanie is going to beat that stupid little smirk off Elias’ face. She will make him whimper and cry for having trapped her in this godforsaken place. She will cut him to ribbons, tear the skin from his body until there’s nothing left. When she’s done with Elias, she’ll make her way through every man who made her feel small, who made her feel weak, and every other crooked, rotten boss who has fucked over their employees.
But until then, she’s got a project to tide her over.