Organizers facilitate the process of forming and building strong, worker-led unions. But what does that actually look like on a day-to-day basis? Though the unpredictable nature of people and politics means that strategies and plans often change, there are standard tools that should be in every organizer’s kit.
For my uncle who asks how much I make in commission, for my mother who refers to my “clients”, for my other uncle who may not know exactly what I do but knows enough to shout “SHE’S NORMA RAE”, and for everyone else asking what union organizers do all day and who are looking for a more detailed response than “I talk to people a lot”... here you go!
Starting the day: messages, meetings, and coffee
Typically, large campaigns have multiple full-time organizers coordinated by a lead organizer, who functions sort of like a team captain. In a campaign for voluntary recognition, organizers spend a lot of time talking and listening to workers and committee members to build support and get authorization cards signed and prepare them for union-busting.
Union organizers start the workday like so many people, grabbing our phones and sifting through texts, emails, Slack messages, and Signal threads. The structure may vary but typically organizing committees have private ways to communicate about questions and concerns that come up, like how unions figure out what to negotiate in a contract. Like any group chat, you’ll need to figure out priorities and how to address people’s questions while also keeping them on task.
Workers use union spaces to share information and develop organizing plans, which may need to change rapidly. Maybe everyone just received an email announcing an all-staff meeting with the company president for later in the week. We assume that this will be a union-busting meeting so we use the group chat and individual follow-ups to prepare committee members with talking points and a plan to inoculate their colleagues.
Work your turf
A lead organizer will divide up workers so that each organizer has “turf” - a group of workers they are responsible for getting in touch with, keeping contact info on, and moving to majority support. An organizer working with nurses, for example, might cover the staff in pediatrics, labor/delivery, and the emergency room and be responsible for maintaining lists and outreach to each department.
A common ratio used is one organizer for every 100 workers, though that’s rarely hewed to exactly. Smaller campaigns may need more resources during an intense boss fight and large campaigns will require organizers to cover a bigger group of people. Either way, when campaigns are in full swing, most teams will start the day with a check-in. Each organizer reviews their assignments for the day (example: I have a one-on-one scheduled with a worker, I have two committee members to follow up with, and I’m going to call five workers to set up one-on-ones). It’s also a good time to share information and review priorities for the week (example: we’ve got an organizing committee meeting tomorrow so everyone has to confirm attendees by this afternoon).
Though each organizer has turf, it’s important not to be territorial and work with your colleagues. Using the medical workers example referenced above, maybe a strong committee member in pediatrics is on the night shift this week so you and a fellow organizer, who's had a hard time connecting with labor and delivery staffers, join together to reach out to new workers. We may feel protective of our turf sometimes (“He’s done so much, I don’t want to ask him to do more!”), but ultimately it’s our job to support workers in building the strongest, most cohesive unit possible.
The most important task of any organizer’s to-do list is talking to workers. There may be times designated throughout the day to call, text, or meet with committee members, but flexibility and availability are key. During a hospital campaign, an organizer might hang out for hours in the cafeteria to try to meet with workers before or after a shift.
Successful campaigns aren’t fully staff driven. Workers on the organizing committee are absolutely essential in moving a campaign forward. A conversation with a committee person may include asking when they plan to get two cards signed by supporters in their department, offering some support like talking points, and hen following up afterward to make sure they got the cards signed.
Love your lists
Organizers are called organizers partly because...well, we gotta stay organized! Winning a campaign based on majority support requires rigorous record keeping. Workplaces change, people quit, new people get hired, and departments get restructured. Any of these changes can impact the percentage of outreach and assessed support. Organizers have different methods and databases for keeping notes, often in a shared google sheet or other platform. Working on your list is called…”listwork”. A good list is one that you can use to send a mass email to with little advance notice and can be referenced anytime to get an accurate snapshot of the campaign and the current status of reaching a strong majority of signed authorization cards. Don’t worry if your desk is a mess, but keep those lists updated and organized.
Throughout the day, the lead will check in with their colleagues (or participate in a running group thread) to debrief difficult conversations and celebrate little victories. One of the most challenging aspects of organizing (I think) is trying to move through specific steps while constantly fielding the unexpected. A solid committee member might be totally thrown off after a challenging conversation with a coworker; the most vocal supporter might be the most nervous leading up to the all-staff meeting; and someone you’ve been trying to reach for weeks might be available to talk but only in the next 20 minutes so you have a one-on-one conversation on your phone while pacing in a hospital parking lot.
Throughout the day, organizers are talking to and listening to workers, tracking down signed cards, and also prepping for whenever the next organizing committee meeting is. The organizing committee meets to make strategic campaign decisions (like when to go public) and to report back on the status of relationships with colleagues in order to move the group to majority support.
Coordinate with allies and colleagues
Along with holding their own turf, the lead organizer coordinates the many moving parts that add up to a successful campaign. Preparing to go public requires worker organization as well as logistical preparation like working with the union staff communications department to start a website and order campaign buttons (from a union vendor!).
Throughout the campaign, organizers will also consult with union legal counsel on a range of issues, like assessing the potential for an unfair labor practice charge regarding a worker who was recently fired or establishing best practices and documentation for voluntary recognition and election agreements. Ideally, we want to be thinking a few steps ahead of the boss, not just responding to their actions. When preparing to make a demand for voluntary recognition, organizers work to ensure that workers are ready to publicly state their support for organizing. A smart organizer will also line up support and solidarity from other unions and influential public figures, like politicians, faith leaders, and advocacy groups.
Organizing is a craft in and of itself and good organizers can adapt to different industries and workforces by following key organizing steps. However, it’s still important to develop an understanding of the industry you’re organizing to draw up more focused strategic plans and worker trust. Subscribing to trade and industry newsletters and setting up google alerts for key executives and companies are all super helpful tricks to stay on top of the basics (set your google alerts to “daily digest” so you’re not overly inundated).
Prep for the next organizing committee meeting
It’s important to be prepared for meetings by drafting an agenda, dividing up speaking roles, and choreographing the logistics for in-person/virtual/simultaneous meetings (booking a room, setting up Zoom, ordering food, preparing materials like flip charts and lists, etc.).
Just as important as developing an agenda is making sure that people attend the meeting. Organizers are all expected to do “meeting turnout” for their turf. An organizer working with nurses might report back two expected attendees from pediatrics at tomorrow night’s meeting, but they aren’t sure about their other departments. Everyone on the team has to be accountable. A lead organizer might ask each team member about their progress on meeting turnout (“Who is confirmed?” “Who can’t make it and why?” “Who hasn’t RSVPed?”). It’s not always easy, but it’s our job to move the work forward, we need clear assessments and accurate data in order to do so.
End the day...eventually
Before calling it a day, organizers check in with their lead and update lists with who is expected at an upcoming meeting and any new assignments or tasks that emerged from the day (for example, someone in the ER couldn’t talk today but said to look for them in the lobby while they’re getting coffee tomorrow). There will be texts, emails, and Slack messages to respond to and it’s very common for organizers to work long and wacky hours on campaigns. But call it a day at some point! Burnout is real and organizers are workers, too.
Organizing ourselves out of a job
A fellow organizer once described our job like being a physical therapist. At first, you’re doing a lot for the individual worker and the overall campaign (coaching them through conversations, answering questions, facilitating meetings, etc.). Over time, though, the goal is to build workers’ organizing muscles so that they can endure a contract campaign and anti-union messaging and eventually teach other workers how to organize.
The immediate goal may be to win union recognition but the long-term goal is to “organize ourselves out of a job” by identifying, developing, and supporting shop-floor leaders and worker activists who can carry a union forward.
A vibrant labor movement requires militant worker activism from every sector, and even the best full-time organizers can’t do it alone.