Why do I have to talk to people so much?
Strong unions build a culture of trust and collaboration across previously isolated groups of workers. Talking to coworkers is a critical part of forming a union - not just once, but on an ongoing basis. Many workers don’t (yet!) have experience joining or organizing a union, which may mean for some that trying something new can be scary and intimidating.
Management talks to workers all day - for the union to be meaningful it has to become a stronger force than management.
Guiding principles: do your research
Do some prep work. Think about your reasons for forming a union and try to anticipate people’s concerns. You’re best positioned to talk with your coworkers and think about agitational talking points - what would get people fired up? You can compare your working standards to a unionized company or cite the company’s profit last year. Draft a rap, which is a general script to follow so you go into any one-on-one with effective framings and a strong case for unionizing.
Prepare yourself emotionally before the conversation - seriously! You want to be in a good headspace to actively listen to your coworker. Ideally, the conversation ends with them agreeing to take action to build the union but don’t get discouraged! It can take several conversations to move someone to action, and every conversation is an opportunity to learn more and build relationships with coworkers.
How do you do it: validate, affirm, and redirect
As you talk with people, you’ll have conversations where people aren’t immediately supportive. When someone expresses reservations with you, appreciate their honesty and approach it as a conversation (not a debate or a sales pitch). One thing to remember is to “Validate, Affirm, and Redirect”. Let them know you hear them, you care about their concerns, and try to bring it back to the issues or reflect on how a union can address their concerns. Read on for some examples of common concerns:
“I can’t afford to lose my job”
“I hear that. It’s a really scary time for a lot of people. We are at-will employees and we could be let go at any time. Organizing is the only way to change that.”
“I need more information”
“I know that this is a new thing for a lot of people and would be the first union experience for a lot of us. Right now, we’re coming together to demand a seat at the table to bargain collectively and we’ll have a chance to work together to develop bargaining priorities. What specific info are you looking for?”. Follow up by sending them articles and inviting them to an info session or social event.
“I’ve heard of divisions between union and non-union workers. It just creates conflict”
“When we hear about conflicts in organizing and negotiating, that’s rarely the first step. We want to propose reasonable terms for our employment and management can agree in the bargaining process or not. It’s up to us where we compromise and where we hold firm. Plus, there’s already conflict. It’s just underground and individual (try to cite an example here, like someone recently fired, not getting a raise, etc).”
“I’m happy. Why should I organize?”
“That’s great that things are working out for you. A union is a chance to preserve the things we like. If there is a management or corporate change, we want to ensure that we have basic protections and that we’ve locked in benefits with a contract. It’s easier to organize when not in the middle of the crisis.”
“I have a good situation so I won’t personally benefit from a union. Maybe that makes me selfish, but…”
“We’re all trying to survive in a really precarious and exploitative economy. It’s totally understandable that you want to protect what you’ve already got. We want to improve things in a union contract but also lock in what’s currently working - right now management could take anything away without our say. What are you afraid of losing?”
“I like my manager so I don’t think that I need a union”
“That’s really great that you’ve got a good relationship with your manager. This isn’t personal and we also know that a specific manager could leave at any time. Winning a seat at the table is the only way that we will have a say in the future or our current working conditions. This is also about negotiating with the decision-makers who have authority (like CEOs). Often, a direct supervisor is enforcing policy but has little to no ability to set those terms (like the budget for salaries).”
“I think we should give management a chance to fix things internally”
“It’s totally understandable to want management to fix things - we deserve that! They only listen to us when we start making a fuss which shows the potential for how much we can secure once we start organizing. If we agree on the solutions with management then we can put those things in a contract. If we don’t agree on the solutions, organizing a union is the only way to make sure that our voices are heard.”
Building strong union leaders
In the initial stages of organizing, you want to identify workplace leaders. Leaders have followers - they can influence people to do things. Who are the people that, if they were on board with organizing, could move a lot of coworkers. When you’re talking with people, ask them things like, “Who do you trust and respect? Who would you want representing you in negotiations? Who do you think I should talk to next?” Ideally, you want to get existing workplace leaders on board for the organizing effort.
Organizing is also about developing new leaders - sometimes the most shy person becomes the most militant and outspoken member. The way to develop leadership is by giving people tasks and assignments so that they start to build ownership in the union (and as a way to assess if they will follow through on commitments). End every conversation with an ask. See if someone will come to an info session or introduce you to someone in their department, for example.
Conclusion: don’t go it alone!
Even if you solely wanted to, to take effective collective action, you can’t go it alone. The success of your campaign and ability to make change lives and dies by the confidence your members have in the union you build. That dynamic, that community, all starts with opening a clear and open line of communication between you and your colleagues.