Organizers, Aim for the Bullseye!
If you ask union members to draw their union structure, most will draw a pyramid: officers at the top, rank and file at the bottom. Some might get clever and draw an inverted pyramid with the rank and file at the top.
But a better way to think about your fellow members, from the organizer’s point of view, is like a dartboard with concentric circles.
In the center is your core group: the people (maybe you?) who are always thinking about organizing and how to get others involved, even on their time off. They might be elected leaders or shop stewards, or not.
In the first ring are the activists who can be counted on to help when an issue heats up. They will take responsibility to get the word out and will ask other people to take action, too.
In the second ring are supporters: people who will wear a button or sign a petition, but don’t take responsibility for getting anyone else involved.
In the third ring are the people who appear most disengaged. They don’t see the union as a factor in their lives, so they don’t participate.
There are also people outside the circle who aren’t just uninvolved—they’re hostile to the union. Don’t waste your time arguing with the haters. Maybe one day something will open their eyes, but it’ll probably be an experience, not a debate, that does it.
YOU’RE DIFFERENT, AND THAT’S OKAY
It’s crucial for the organizer to understand that the concentration of co-workers in the outer rings isn’t a sign of failure. Most of your co-workers won’t ever become dedicated union volunteers, day in and day out.
Even in winning campaigns, the planning, the strategizing, and a fair share of the grunt work are typically carried out by a handful of members: the core group. The activists and supporters join in as needed, and a lot of the people who are usually disengaged play a part when the stakes get highest—for example, during a strike.
Don’t set the bar too high. You can’t send a message that to be involved in the union, people have to be like you. They’ll shy away. Making a meaningful contribution shouldn’t require devoting all their days and nights. Instead, help everyone to find their own levels of involvement. And as you take on different fights, don’t be surprised when people move between roles—sometimes acting as leaders, other times hanging back.
But you probably do need more people to join you in the core group, and more supporters to step up as activists. “More hands on the plow,” as master organizer and Auto Workers rabblerouser Jerry Tucker used to say. Union veterans will tell you that a good goal is one activist or steward for every 10 workers, including at least one on every shift and in every department or work area.
PEOPLE MOVE STEP BY STEP
Your organizing task is, how are you going to move more people toward the center of the bullseye? Help them take one step at a time, moving from being disengaged to supportive, or from support to activism, or from activism to taking on core responsibilities. Never make your core group an exclusive club.
Usually you’re not trying to move someone all the way from disengaged to organizer in one conversation. Slow and steady wins the race.
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There is one major exception to this rule. When people are in a high-stakes fight where they’re forced into action against a powerful enemy, it can change their thinking overnight. But most times, you will make better progress, and be less prone to disappointment, if you expect people to dip their toes in gradually.
Don’t give up on people because of one “no.” They may warm up over time. There may be things they’re willing to do that neither of you has thought of yet.
Ask your co-workers to take a specific action. Choose a manageable task. Don’t make it seem like an open-ended commitment. Be clear about how much time it will take, why you’re doing it, and how it fits into the overall plan.
Here’s an unproductive approach: “A few of us are carrying the whole burden and doing everything in the union. We really need you to get involved.” (This request has the added disadvantage of being a guilt trip.)
What’s a better way? “We’re trying to reach 200 people about the dangerous temperatures in the plant lately. Can you be a part of the phonebank next Tuesday or Wednesday night?”
This request defines the task (make calls), the time (Tuesday or Wednesday night), the goal (reach 200 people), and the issue (dangerous temperatures).
If this co-worker had never phonebanked before, you could improve the request further by explaining what to expect. “A few of us will sit together for two hours and call our co-workers. You’ll have a list of phone numbers and a loose script to help you along, including three questions we’re asking everybody. Afterwards we’ll tally the answers and discuss what we learned.”
DON’T BE A HERO
As an organizer, you can’t be a superhero or a firefighter. (Even if you are a firefighter.) Your role isn’t to knock the door down, burst in, and rescue people; it’s to build a team of activists.
Guard against the impulse to put yourself at the center of everything the union is doing. As the great civil rights activist Ella Baker said, we need more movement-centered leaders, not leader-centered movements.
This attitude adjustment can be challenging, since many of us are motivated by a strong sense of injustice. You’re outraged at the petty slights the supervisor dishes out. You don’t want to let the problem go on a moment longer.
But a good organizer taps into that righteous anger in others, motivates people to take collective action, and gives them the experience of bringing about change together. That’s how you build power at work and develop leadership.
This is particularly hard because your co-workers often expect you to be the hero. They are comfortable letting you take all the risks. But they won’t learn to help themselves—or help each other—if you do everything for them.
So when a co-worker comes to you with a problem, instead of tying on your cape, look for ways you can help her to get the ball rolling herself.
More from Secrets of a Successful Organizer
Ever feel like you’re the only one who cares about the union? Here's what to try when it seems like your workplace is bogged down in “apathy.”
Think your workplace is disorganized? Think again. An organizer must learn to recognize the existing networks and natural leaders—who may be hidden in plain sight.
How do you make a jumble of tactics into an escalating campaign? Turn up the heat gradually, like these factory workers who defeated two-tier.