Steward's Corner: Don't Complain, Organize!

Workers in yellow vests sit around a lunch table at work.

Lunchtime at work could be one long gripe session... or your lunch group could spend the time making a plan to change things. Photo: Jim West / jimwestphoto.com

Complaining isn’t the first step to organizing—it’s the graveyard of organizing. Just ask any union steward or rep who has listened to a member complain bitterly but refuse to take action.

If you’re a steward, officer, or rank and filer trying to fix problems on the job (or in the union), a good place to start is to rethink the role of complaining in your work culture.

There’s probably no easier way for co-workers to communicate with each other than by complaining. It’s the universal “go-to” for informal work chat:

“Can you believe what he just did...”
“What were they thinking when...”
“I’ve had it with her...”
“If I have to clean up after them one more time…”

For any worker entering a job, there’s a kind of unwritten law: Listen to who’s complaining about what, who’s agreeing, who’s keeping away from the mess, and you’ll learn a lot about the boss and power relationships on the floor.

IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE

Many of us feel that complaining is natural, especially in workplaces that are riddled with inequities, bullying, speed-up, understaffing, and irrational management. If you don’t complain, aren’t you somehow agreeing with the terrible conditions?

Complaining may even seem righteous. Some organizers will tell you that complaining is productive because it brings simmering problems to the surface.

But complaining to “let off steam,” if you take no action to change the problem, demonstrates something that’s poles apart from organizing—powerlessness.

It’s as if you’re saying, “This thing is wrong, unfair, and hard for me to manage. But now that I’ve pointed it out, I’m going to go back to living with it, because there’s nothing else I can do.”

For co-workers, it reinforces their own sense of powerlessness and tends to keep them passive. For the employer, it’s a perfect solution!

Fortunately, it isn’t hard to recognize these destructive patterns and start to change them.

Someone who’s complaining is often looking for others to agree. But they may instead polarize co-workers, creating a toxic, divided atmosphere that undermines the potential for group action.

For example, suppose one worker is furious at how she has been affected by a particular policy, such as a change in hours. She’s fuming in the break room. She expects everyone to share her outrage.

But the complainer hasn’t bothered to consider that this policy may benefit others, even a solid majority of her co-workers. She may be putting them in an uncomfortable position—and isolating herself.

GRIPES CAN BE DIVISIVE

What if, instead of complaining, she sought to learn more about the policy, educate her co-workers about its impact on individuals, and invite discussion about possible solutions? Then the result could be alignment rather than division.

Complaining can also have the unintended effect of reinforcing the boss’s logic.

Imagine your workplace suffers from understaffing. (This may not take a lot of imagining.) Everyone is under pressure to work harder and faster, to take overtime, to cut corners, to work outside their job duties.

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Complaining is the norm. But then someone steps up to suggest that everyone get together to make demands on the boss. As soon as this happens, the floodgates of “boss logic” will be opened.

Someone will say, “They don’t have the money,” or “There’s no one out there to hire—they’ve tried,” or “Yeah, but if they hire more staff we’ll never get a raise,” and on and on.

THE BOSS’S LOGIC

This happens because we’ve become accustomed to having no power, fail- ing to identify our collective needs, and shirking our responsibility to organize and fight.

All we’re left with are the excuses that the bosses themselves use to maintain the status quo.

But if we change our mindset, think like organizers, and commit to nipping complaining in the bud, we can begin to reverse these negative habits.

GET CONSTRUCTIVE

An organizer (whether a co-worker or union staffer) should always keep in mind these four phases of organizing:

1. Help people identify the balance of power between labor and management (including the power we have that we’re currently squandering).

2. Help bring people together around a shared problem.

3. Help people overcome fear and plan collective action to address the problem.

4. Help people reflect, evaluate, and start again.

When faced with complaining, an organizer can engage the complainer with these kinds of questions:

  • What’s the history and what are the facts of the situation (not just the complainer’s feelings)?
  • Who else is affected? Have they been approached?
  • Who is creating the problem? Have they been approached?
  • What’s been tried to fix it? If nothing has been tried, why not?
  • What could be done as a first (or next) step? What will the obstacles be?

ASK QUESTIONS

Each of these questions will open the door to further action steps. For example, if the complainer says he has no idea who else is affected, encourage him to start asking co-workers if they also care about this problem. If he is hesitant, try talking through how those conversations could go. You could even offer to accompany him.

Or if the complainer is stumped about what could be tried to fix it, suggest that this question be placed in front of the next union meeting, or posed to union officers, or put to members in an open-ended survey.

Key to ending the death-grip of a complaint culture is to ask questions—thoughtful, respectful questions that point out what we all have in common and lead the way toward collective action.

And remember, the organizer’s job isn’t to “sell” a particular plan of action. It’s to confidently assert that some plan of action is possible.

Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA and a member of the Labor Notes board.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 484. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.