Over the last five years, in big pro-union cities and small Southern towns, more than 7,000 workers in 145 shops have organized with the NewsGuild, a sector of the Communications Workers (CWA). After years of layoffs, buyouts, and pay cuts, workers across an entire industry seemed ready to organize.
There was no way our union could hire enough staff organizers to keep up. So we built a member-led movement that could grow fast.
Rank-and-file members, many of them fresh off their own organizing campaigns, answer emails and calls from workers at non-union shops, train new organizing committees, track assessments of support, win certification elections, and prepare workers for brutal first-contract campaigns.
One goal of the program is to demystify and democratize the organizing process—and more broadly, the labor movement. When non-union workers want to organize, they have lots of questions. Often they’re scared about getting involved in something they have no experience with. Meeting a union member who has recently been through it eases their anxieties and makes the process concrete.
Another goal is to front-load training, so that workers have the tools to run every function of their union, from planning and facilitating meetings to recruiting and training stewards and bargaining committees.
So far we’ve developed 85 member organizers. Some are volunteers who focus on building union strength in their own shops, often in first-contract fights. Others are paid five hours per week to work on an organizing drive in a non-union shop, under the guidance of a staff organizer.
Leadership isn’t about taking on union tasks ourselves. It’s about developing others to participate.
Here’s an example: Your union is taking action one week from now. Twenty people need to be called and invited. What do you do?
A task is not just something to get done. It’s an opportunity to strengthen your union by developing other members.
Adapted from NewsGuild training materials.
The program operates on the principle of “Learn It, Do It, Teach It.” Member organizers work side by side with NewsGuild staff, learning skills such as facilitating meetings and leading one-on-one conversations.
Once you learn a new skill, you do it yourself. For example, after watching a staff organizer lead a training, a member organizer facilitates that same training the next time.
Volunteer and paid member organizers come together in monthly virtual “pod” meetings of 8-10 people. They talk through goals and challenges in their campaigns and set targets on their personal benchmark trackers (discussed below).
Pods mix members from different parts of the country so we can build new relationships and learn from each other. For example, Brittany was working with an underground organizing committee that was struggling to get more co-workers involved; committee members were taking on all the work of the union themselves.
Brittany found that others in her pod had overcome a similar challenge. She brought member organizers from The Austin American-Statesman in Texas and The State in South Carolina back to the committee meeting, and their advice helped the campaign move forward.
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Andrew has spoken to many organizing committees about his experience in the election at The Florida Times-Union, where some workers dropped their union support at the last minute after a popular manager cried. In hindsight, he concluded the committee had not done enough to prepare co-workers for the highly emotional aspects of the anti-union campaign (though the workers still won the vote).
Learning from that experience, Andrew advised the committee at The Miami Herald to warn co-workers that their beloved manager would cry in front of everyone. When she did just that, workers were prepared and stood strong.
With the right tools and prep, workers can train ourselves and each other. We created two easy-to-understand tools: a campaign tracker and a benchmark tracker.
The campaign tracker is a comprehensive spreadsheet with multiple tabs that both staff and member organizers use to move through organizing drives and contract campaigns. Each campaign has a lead organizer (staff or member) who sets up a tracker and uses it to log conversations, set weekly goals, and measure progress on various metrics.
The tracker follows CWA’s Four Stages of Organizing: Contact, Committee, Campaign, Contract. It includes checklists for moving to the next stage. For example, before we go public, we need an organizing committee that is representative of the workforce; also, a super-majority of workers should be committed to showing public support and prepped for the boss’s reaction.
Staffers have a particular role to play: not on stage, but behind the scenes. Staffers rarely talk in spaces meant for workers to own, such as committee meetings, trainings, bargaining sessions, and confronting management.
For member organizers too, one of the most important skills to learn is how to step back and empower others to do the work. (See box.)
While the campaign tracker is for tracking the progress of new organizing drives, member organizers use a personal benchmark tracker to implement the Learn It, Do It, Teach It model in their own (already unionized) shops.
The benchmark tracker groups skills into categories such as one-on-one conversations, answering tough questions, inoculation against union-busting, moving through an organizing drive, and steward skills. Members check off each skill as they learn it, do it, and teach it.
Most of our worker-activists were stalling out at Do It—they would learn skills, but then continue doing much of the work themselves. We challenge these members to think about how they can mentor others. For example, rather than make all the turnout calls for an action, why not have other members shadow you and then assign them people to call?
We want every union to experience the same explosive growth as the NewsGuild—but such growth requires a lot more organizers than a union has on staff. The member organizer program has made our union stronger and more democratic, with activist members who are teaching each other how to build power.
When the Florida Times-Union organized, it was the only new unit without a contract at the media company Gannett, which has 10,000 employees across hundreds of newsrooms. We didn’t have many peers to learn from, so the contract fight seemed insurmountable and sometimes lonely. Today, Gannett has 40 new and existing units fighting for fair contracts in coordination.
The wins beget more wins. Many of our new campaigns began because someone in a newsroom saw a member organizer’s work on a campaign elsewhere and decided to reach out. Then, after they win union certification, they become member organizers themselves and repeat the process all over again.
Brittany Carloni organized her newsroom at the Naples Daily News in Florida and now works at The Indianapolis Star. Andrew Pantazi worked at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and now runs his own nonprofit news organization. Stephanie Basile is an organizer for the NewsGuild.