Most of us have signed at least one - if not many - petitions to signal our support for an issue or campaign. The classic clipboard with a pen and paper petition still circulates at local events and on neighborhood street corners. However, the rise of digital tools has made petitions even more accessible to garner broad support for everything from paid sick leave for healthcare workers in Wisconsin to racism and online harassment at Twitch to suspending mortgage and rent payments in Georgia.
Whether or not workers are in a formally recognized union, they have a number of tools to build collective power and hold institutions accountable. Petitions are a powerful tool that can both move a target by demonstrating popular support and are also used internally to assess support for a specific action or campaign. At its most basic, a petition communicates that the signers support a specific issue or demand. I spoke with two staff from the Campaigns team at Coworker.org - Kendra Ijeoma, Director of Communication & Campaigns, and Laila N., Senior Campaign Strategist - to learn more about how workers develop effective petitions to address workplace issues and build strong campaigns.
Elements of an effective petition
Typically, a petition is not a complaint form or a list of grievances. A “clear demand, clear solution, and broad appeal are some of the key indicators of an effective petition,” says Kendra. “I’m coming with a demand, offering a solution, and showing that it’s not just me and my supporters.”
Typically the petition’s goal is to convince someone to do something specific. It’s important to “make sure that the person you’re directing the petition towards has the power to change what you’re asking for,” says Laila. “We’ve seen petitions asking the US government to support dress code demands at a workplace. Although we [Coworker.org staff] do not choose, we recommend to people: whoever is the target should be someone who can actually make change.”
Once you’ve determined your demand and recipient, you’re ready to write. Coworker.org organizers recommend keeping it short and sweet - a clear title followed by a couple of paragraphs or list of demands is more than sufficient. Kendra says that sometimes “we’ll see titles like ‘work sucks’ and that’s not very clear. Your title is the thing that’s going to grab people so keep it positive or action oriented: ‘help do X’ or ‘make X better’ or ‘we demand Y.” But, as with all organizing, tools can be used creatively and should center the experience and expertise of the worker. Laila reminds us that “some of the most effective tactics are getting coworkers to organize each other. There have been some really successful petitions that have a lot of exclamation points, for example, and we might not write it that way but it really resonates and people sign on.”
Setting a goal for signatures is subjective, and while Kendra and Laila think of 100 as the floor amount, both caution that “there’s no magical number.” Petitions with less than 100 signatures can be effective simply because they show the employer that people are organizing and demanding something. Laila gave the example that it is always “subjective and depends on the size of the place. If this is a petition to a small bookstore, 100 signatures is going to mean a lot more than 100 at Amazon.”
Petitions as part of an overall campaign
Think about how best to use the petition. Will the employer be moved by a large showing of support from employees? Maybe your goal is a large number of signers or maybe you want to focus on getting supporters from influential people that the target cares about. How will you deliver the petition? Emailing it privately may make the most sense in some situations while other times a bit of theater may help (like printing out the petition and delivering publicly at a key event).
If your demand isn’t met after delivering a petition, that groundwork can be used to continue applying pressure. Petitions are a tool and a useful tactic for building support and applying pressure, similar to other organizing tools like rallies or phone banking. To build momentum, Coworker.org allows people to send updates to petition signers and supports people in executing sustained pressure campaigns.
Whether or not the demand is won quickly (or at all), petitions can be effective internal base building tools in part because they surface issues and start to change a culture of isolation. “They can be a place to get some moral support and take a temperature check - do other people feel this way?” Kendra says. “People can be shocked that they get signatures and that other people are feeling the same way. Even if the demand isn’t won can be a rallying point for further action.”
Petitions can also be a means of transitioning an isolated action into a broader campaign or formal union effort. I once worked on a union campaign that grew in part out of a previous year’s action to address sexual harassment in the workplace. By tracking conversations and support from coworkers, they were able to build a list of who was willing to take action on an issue, as well as who was likely to try to derail an effort or leak to management. Their action also surfaced who was willing to do the work to move a workplace campaign forward and connected people who cared about the same things but may not have otherwise connected with each other. People from that group transitioned into becoming an organizing committee that successfully unionized their workplace (in part because their issues were not meaningfully addressed by management).
Takeaways: petitions as a means, not an end
As technology and issues change, one thing that makes petitions so powerful is that they are relatively simple to produce and provide a low barrier to entry for people who may be wanting to take action for the first time. “Petitions are effective,” says Laila. “It’s this seemingly simple tool: put a demand out, ask people to sign it. It feels old school but it’s still incredibly effective for people to put their name on something and demand change in the workplace.”
If you want to change something at work and don’t know how, a petition is a great place to start. You might also want to talk to your coworkers about organizing a union to establish a lasting democratic structure to address and change injustice in the workplace.