As everyone who has ever had a job knows, issues are going to come up in the workplace — with or without a union contract. And even if you individually raise those concerns to management, they might not ever get addressed.

Luckily, you don’t have to settle for the status quo forever. If you team up with your coworkers, you’ll find you have a lot of power to make valuable improvements. If your employer is acting shady or there’s a policy you want to fix, it might be time to launch an issue campaign.

As the name suggests, an issue campaign is when a workforce comes together to pressure the employer into change. In the last year or so, you’ve probably seen issue campaigns in action. Think about the Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama who were dealing with draconian break policies, impossible quotas and lack of air conditioning. These tangible problems speak to people and are easy to rally around.

In Bessemer, workers used their horrendous working conditions as a way to gain momentum in their unionizing efforts and to enact change. But issue campaigns aren’t limited to workplaces that have unionized, or are in the process of doing so. Remember when Instacart workers organized a work stoppage early in the pandemic? Getting large numbers of fellow-shoppers to refuse to take orders for a day was a feat workers were able to achieve because the subjects everyone was rallying around were so universal: hazard pay, protective gear and sick days.

Union membership affords workers an added layer of protection during issue campaigns, but it’s certainly not a requirement.

If you are in a union, however, you may find that issue campaigns can solve problems and boost confidence in your group. It’s kind of like the ultimate bonding activity — aside from a ropes course.

Ready to get started?

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An issue worth fighting for

Issue campaigns are their most successful when they’re targeting matters that affect more than just an individual or two. Problems that only Pam from reception deals with aren’t any less important, but these worries may not gain traction among the greater workforce. (If Pam is in a union, she’s not totally left to her own devices: She could speak to her steward, who can file a grievance for her, or consult her union’s lawyers for help.)

Now, if we’re talking about problems multiple people are experiencing, a campaign becomes a more attractive option. Issues might make themselves known in a union meeting or a casual happy hour after work, when someone shares something and several others chime in that, yeah, that’s something they’re also dealing with.

Because campaigns take time, energy and engagement, it’s worth weighing the options on if you want to take a problem on — and how big you want to go with it. The AFL-CIO recommends asking a few simple questions to determine if an issue campaign is the right move. We’re paraphrasing here, but it’s worth running through the list:

  • Does this problem affect a bunch of people?
  • Does anyone care about this problem enough to act on it?
  • Is this something your union/workforce can actually fix?
  • Will it help bring people together?

If your issue checks these boxes, let’s organize.

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What an issue campaign looks like

To pull off an issue campaign that motivates your coworkers and convinces the employer to address your problems, you’re going to need help. Consider tapping passionate Type A workers to lead the charge, or ask one of your union committees to oversee the campaign. These individuals can keep your group on track and ensure clear communication and direction to the rest of your coworkers. If you're in a union, loop your advisor in for help, too.

Once assembled, this dream team of a committee will need to start at square one: outlining exactly what the issue is and packaging it into a short, clear sound bite. They should also do some fact-finding to understand the problem in its entirety. This information will help you decide next steps.

And what are those next steps? Workers can opt to sign petitions, hold meetings with leadership, apply public pressure or, if it’s a particularly gnarly issue, go on strike. Map out how your group will escalate the situation if, say, your petition fails. Anticipating your employer’s next move will keep you thinking ahead and able to react quickly.

No matter the course of action your coworkers decide to take, you’ll need to keep everyone engaged with the issue. After all, if interest wanes, your employer will never change anything. Boo!

Talking to your coworkers can be intimidating, we get it. Remember: Start with the people you’re closest to, avoid managers, hold conversations on breaks or outside of work, and aim to spend more time listening than you do talking. Still stuck after that incredibly short list of advice? Here are some more handy tips to help you navigate those conversations.  

FYI, raising awareness doesn’t have to be a chore! Make it as fun as the subject matter allows. Create buttons for your coworkers to wear (if you’re feeling crafty), shoot a fun video to share (hi, Gen Z) or write a good old-fashioned email blast to your coworkers to keep things light while keeping everyone in the loop.

If it’s a big issue, don’t be afraid to engage your community — maybe a local hero can throw their weight behind your group and keep your employer in the hot seat. Consider getting the press involved or speaking out on social media. Being publicly called out for bad behavior is a pretty effective tool!

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The results of issue campaigns

If you’ve planned well, engaged your coworkers and shown strength in numbers, hopefully your employer will see the egregious error of their ways and make moves to rectify the situation. As always, feel free to decline your employer’s first offer if it’s not good enough. Keep on them to make the situation right!

When your employer finally gets their act together, take a second to bask in the fruits of your labor. Your coworkers have shown they can get things done! You have solved a major workplace problem! And as a bonus, you’ve likely grown closer with your coworkers.

We see no issue in that.