By Joe Fahey
How many members attend your union meetings? And how do you feel about that?
Whether it’s just a handful or a hundred, no activist is ever satisfied.
But you can drop a whole load of frustration if you stop expecting a majority of members to travel to the union hall for a two-hour monthly meeting. Thinking about members and meetings in a different way can allow you to bring shorter union meetings to more and more members—at the workplace.
In most membership organizations—churches, community organizations, sports clubs—about 1 percent of the members are super-interested and super-committed and do most of the volunteering.
In a typical Little League, a few people volunteer to be coaches. A few others arrive hours before the game to open the snack bar, mow the grass, and chalk the baselines. Often the same few remain afterward counting the snack bar money and cleaning up.
Sound familiar? In the union, we are those people.
An organization, or a union, can survive with that 1 percent. But in a mighty organization, 10 percent of the members who are a little more interested have been identified and asked to do something that helps the organization.
Take an interest
Has a co-worker—let’s call him Bob—ever asked you, “What happened at the union meeting yesterday?” Did you feel like saying, “You shoulda been there!”?
But ask yourself, what does Bob’s question tell us about him? That he’s more interested than all of the members who have never asked us what happened at the union meeting. Instead of getting mad at Bob for what he doesn’t do, we can be glad he’s interested— and design a small request that he is ready for.
You can make a deal with Bob: if you find him every month and give him a short report from the union meeting, he will agree to pass along the most important points to the co-workers he has lunch with.
To bring the union meeting to even more workers, you’ll need to identify and recruit more volunteers like Bob. When you do that, you will have a communication structure: a member-to-member network.
The most valuable potential volunteers are those who are already trusted by their co-workers. They don’t necessarily stand out, so they can go unnoticed by busy activists and union leaders. But these “most trusteds” usually have similar qualities: They are good workers. They prevent problems for themselves. They listen more than talk, they respect others, and they refrain from gossip, complaining, joining cliques, trashing co-workers, and other drama.
How do you find the most trusteds? Just ask around. Have conversations with groups of workers that work together or go to lunch or break together. Say that you are trying to set up a communication network and you want to approach someone that co-workers trust the most. They don’t have to be the most union-involved, just the most trustworthy.
Whether or not the most trusteds have shown much interest in the union up to now, they can be asked to do a small job such as Bob is doing with his co-workers.
When recruiting folks for this job, it’s important that you communicate not only what you’re asking them to do and why but also the qualities they have that make them perfect for it. These folks know that the role they’re already playing is important to their co-workers. You can go a long way by communicating that you notice and value them.
The idea is to recruit the most trusted co-workers and get them talking about the union as part of what they’re already doing with the people who trust them.
ABCs of organizing
For such a communication structure to work, there needs to be good teamwork between the activists (that’s you) and the trusted workplace leaders. Both are essential.
Activists will tolerate and even enjoy meetings about strategy and next steps to educate and organize their members. They can prepare materials that make it easier for the workplace leaders to do their part, such as a one-minute, three-point script that summarizes the union meeting, or members’ right to union representation before filling out an accident report.
In every workplace, workers show a range of knowledge about and interest in the union, from A to Z, with the As knowing the least and the Zs being the most knowledgeable and committed. Most Labor Notes subscribers are closer to Z. Most of our members are closer to A.
Our job as activists is to help move more members from As to Bs, or from Cs to Ds—and as far up the alphabet as they’re willing to go.
That’s where we can get help from Bob and others like him. Let’s say that Bob was a D on our scale. But since he was recruited to share the highlights of the union meeting with the co-workers he eats lunch with, the As in his lunch group have become Bs and the Bs have become Cs. And Bob has moved also, from a D to an E.
Now everyone in Bob’s small circle is moving, slowly but steadily, toward more knowledge and more connection to the union—without even coming to membership meetings! These workers are all, in effect, having a monthly union meeting: two hours for you at the hall, five minutes at the workplace for Bob, and a minute or two for his co-workers at lunch.
Workplace leaders like Bob know “their people” and what union role an individual might say yes to. Who is the friendliest person in the group, always the first to meet a new worker? Maybe they can be recruited as a union greeter to answer questions new workers have, and introduce them to co-workers and the steward. Who loves to barbecue? Maybe they could be asked to cook at the union picnic.
As workplace leaders get comfortable with their role (with your continued encouragement), they are best situated to help their co-workers increase their connection to the best values and highest ideals of the union and to step their way up the alphabet.
So let go of your frustration about low attendance at union meetings, and focus on your five-minute meetings with members like Bob.
Joe Fahey is a retired Teamsters local president and international rep. Through the Labor Notes Associates program, he does training and coaching for unions on internal organizing and overcoming divisions. To find out more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared at Labor Notes