We know good organizers when we meet them.
They’re accessible. They listen and show respect. They react calmly to all kinds of people, take their time to size up a situation, and engage people on their own terms.
They brim with suggestions for action, but they’re open to new ideas. They’re not bossy. They always take workers’ side against employers—but among workers, they treat divisions with care and diligence.
They don’t act from fear, and they know how to help others lose their fear.
But few people are born organizers. Instead, we have to find and nurture people who show some interest and willingness to become organizers.
An experiment in Ithaca, New York, over the last two years has shown surprising results in helping workers become organizers, with a method easy to adapt and reproduce anywhere.
Here’s how it developed. For 15 years the Tompkins County Workers’ Center has run a range of programs, from mobilizing community support for union campaigns to lobbying for pro-worker policies to anchoring a worker-rights hotline.
But we kept finding that workers were terrified to take action in their own workplaces—whether to challenge labor law violations, to talk to co-workers about unfair practices, to organize a union, or even to file a grievance if they already had a union.
It became clear what was needed: a method to help workers overcome their fear and learn to take collective action.
Same time, same place
Getting past fear doesn’t happen all at once. It needs steady doses of support from organizers who offer information, encouragement, and examples of what’s been done elsewhere. It needs organizers who don’t give up easily.
The best organizers are fellow workers you know and trust. So finding these nascent organizers and accelerating their development became goals of our worker center.
Out of these goals came a simple plan we call Community Union Organizers. It has no staff, no budget, and no “deliverables” for any funder. Instead it is a peer coaching group that has evolved into a uniquely potent space.
Every week, workers from a range of jobs—primarily retail, hospitality, health care, and education, the dominant industries in our area—get together at the same time, in the same place. Some have unions, some don’t. The opening question is always the same: what’s happening in your workplace that you want to address as a rank-and-file organizer?
From there the questions go in different directions. We may explore how workers in a specific shop are experiencing disrespect and precarious conditions. We often try to analyze a boss’s strategy to keep control. And we focus a lot on possible strategies to bring workers together and fight back.
One night a barista arrives devastated by a critical performance evaluation. She is mystified and demoralized.
“I’m the most senior employee. All my evaluations up to now have been exemplary,” she says, looking around at us, in pain.
A pizza delivery guy says, “Well what do you expect? You just organized a union in your coffee shop. You think the boss isn’t going to pay you back?”
Discussion turns to filing a grievance, and how fortunate it is that the union held out for “just cause” language in its first contract, settled just months earlier.
But the barista still looks miserable. “Everyone will be scared now,” she says. “If they can do this to me, they can do it to anyone.”
That’s when the talk turns to organizing. Someone asks, what would happen if she openly shared her performance evaluation with all the other workers?
Shocked silence. People begin to talk about the shame of being evaluated and exposed to criticism. Workplaces can be gossipy and cliquish. Reputation feels important.
But the people around the table—some retail clerks, a registered nurse, a teaching assistant, some grad students, a commercial baker—are looking at the barista with fondness, confidence, and patience.
You can almost see the pivot happen in her brain. From these monthly discussions she knows that nothing will change unless she changes. She steps past her own fear. “Okay, I’ll copy my evaluation and pass it out to all the union members,” she tells us. And in that moment, an organizing process has begun.
Fast forward one year: Every week this barista is bringing new problems to the CUOs, and as a result introducing new ideas to her co-workers. The members of her union are now pushing back directly whenever the employer pushes them. They didn’t like how scheduling was being done, so they collected preferences from all the workers and started posting their own schedules.
When new hires get harassed by management before they pass probation, now they go to their co-workers, who sign group letters of support and descend on the boss to demand respect.
During a re-opener for wages, they’ve decided that tips lead to instability and inequities between shifts, stores, and seasons—so they’re organizing to eliminate the tipping system altogether. This took a lot of one-on-one and group discussions, as individuals slowly came to see that competing for tips was dividing them when they needed to be united.
Here’s another story: A retail worker in a consumer co-op was stumped. Her co-workers were so dazzled by the idea of a “shared mission” with management that they weren’t sure whether or how to assert their own voice.
Week by week, the Community Union Organizers puzzled through this challenge. Because management had always used the “co-op” philosophy to lull workers into being cooperative, it was necessary to find ways to expose its hypocrisy.
After management imposed a new evaluation system without consulting workers, the CUO member helped a group of co-workers to see that there was no “shared mission” and to push back. Now an organizing committee has formed and is taking steps to unionize… an idea that drew nervous laughs a few months earlier.
And one more: A health care worker asked the CUO for help in thinking about his role in a new workplace that had a largely ineffective union. His earlier experience with a poorly run union drive had left him bitter and uncertain whether he had the stomach to get involved.
CUO members offered intelligent questions, reflection, and support. They helped move this worker to run for steward. Now he talks with his co-workers systematically, digs into issues, challenges the practices of incompetent union officers, and brings colleagues together to fight on worksite problems.
Other Community Union Organizers are building caucuses inside their less-than-democratic unions, or “salting” (getting jobs with the undercover goal of helping organize a union) into notoriously toxic workplaces, or finding ways to stand up for their co-workers even without a union.
Learning by reflecting
These regular workers are teaching one another how to become really good rank-and-file organizers.
What makes the process work? The most basic rule is that members show respect and curiosity for one another’s experiences. There is a lot of non-judgmental listening, offering questions, trying out ideas, providing encouragement.
It’s a warm environment, but also sharp and purposeful. We return constantly to the principles of rank-and-file unionism as outlined in Secrets of a Successful Organizer, our “organizing bible.”
We always ask, how are you bringing in more people? How are you promoting discussion and shared decision-making? How are you helping your co-workers act collectively to challenge the boss? We never let up on that focus.
Our expectation is that everyone can offer ideas based on their own experiences… and that there is wisdom to be gleaned there.
It’s also useful to have seasoned organizers in the group to offer context and historical lessons, to anticipate problems that may crop up, and to push members to be practical as well as courageous.
Finally, we commit to following through with members by asking each week how things are developing, what steps did they try, what were the results, what are they facing now.
Over time we witness—and are inspired by—their growth. Caught as we are in a moment of sharp inequalities, we need sharp organizers. This is how we’re nurturing them.
This article was first published by Labor Notes.