👳🏽 "I want to get a better job"
👩🏼 "Me too. There's a warehouse near me hiring for general labour jobs. I'm thinking of applying."
👳🏽 "The pay is no good here. I used to work as a general construction labourer but I got laid off."
👩🏼 "I work as a security guard when I'm not working here. I might have to check out some part time jobs near me just to make ends meet. It's either that or take extra security jobs on the side"
👳🏽 "I need a job working for a unionised company. I'm so sick of all the job agencies near me. All they offer is low paying temporary jobs."
👩🏼 "I know right? And if you work for a temp agency they can keep you for a year and then just end your contract. Job agencies do this all the time, only offering temporary jobs and part time jobs with low pay, no benefits, and half the time they send you to dangerous job sites."
👳🏽 "I have no idea how to start a union do you?"
👩🏼 "No, I'm not even sure how many employees are needed to form a union"
👳🏽 "Oh well, what's the point of wasting our time learning how to form a union? We might as well just search for better paying security guard jobs with the city or something."
👩🏼 "Yeah, I'll keep checking the job center to see if they have anything."
This is an instruction manual for warehouse workers who want to learn how to organize and ultimately unionize their work place.
These methods have been learned from books, blogs, and articles, but rely most heavily on two works; the book titled Secrets of a Successful Organizer (Bradbury/Brenner/Slaughter), and the blog Fire with Fire (Roger Williams, pseudonym)
Did the example above remind you of the type of conversation you sometimes hear in your work place? It's important to listen for these kinds of conversations. When organizing a work place, we want to listen to what our co-workers are saying so we can understand what matters most to them. Eventually we want to choose an issue to organize around, which brings us to our first step...
Our first step of organizing a work place is to identify an issue that the majority of the workers want to be addressed. We describe the step as identifying "the" issue, but in your work place, there are likely multiple issues that your co-workers feel strongly about. We say "the", because ideally, you want to organize around an issue that the majority of your co-workers all feel strongly about.
👩🏽 "Don't you think it's unfair that we work so hard for management, and they don't even care enough to get our paycheques right?"
🧒🏼 "I can't even think about that right now, I am in so much pain. This concrete floor is the worst. I bought insoles from the Shoe Warehouse but they don't do much for my lateral foot pain. I don't know what else to do!"
We now have new information to suggest that maybe the paycheque issue isn't the best issue to focus on for organizing. Workers are frustrated about it, but the worker in the example above is clearly much more concerned about their pain. Maybe you have heard some workers complaining of medial knee pain, and others with tibialis anterior pain. Maybe the injuries caused by the concrete floor is a better issue to organize around. In this situation, we can make a mental note to ask our other co-workers, so we can find out if they are also having pain. Organizing only works when you organize around issues that the workers care about, issues that matter to them.
When we ask our co-workers questions, it may feel awkward at first. Again, you don't want to recite them like a game of twenty questions. Just make them part of the conversation. We ask our co-workers questions all the time, like "What did you do over the weekend?" or "What do you think of the new Supervisor?" etc.
The only difference is that these questions are to identify what issues our co-workers care most about, so that we can choose the best issue to organize around, and the one most co-workers would be willing to take action to resolve.
To use these questions effectively, we don't want to memorize all the questions, choose a co-worker, and then ask them a bunch of questions one after another. A better approach is to study these questions, keep them in mind, and be aware of a point in a conversation where it would be appropriate to ask. Over time, you will learn to identify those moments in a conversation easily. It can sometimes help to ask about an issue that you know other co-workers feel strongly about, to see if the co-worker you are speaking with agrees or not. If they agree that the issue you brought up is the most important one, great. And if not, they may feel like sharing whatever issue that they do feel is important.
👩🏽 "So are you planning to stay here until you retire, or do you have other plans?"
👷🏼 "This place is no good. I am always looking for another job. I want to get out of here as soon as I can!"
👩🏽 "I don't blame you. Is it the supervisors? I know a lot of the workers can't stand them."
👷🏼 "No they're not that bad, you know what the real problem with this place is? The parking lot. There is never a place to park your car!"
So it seems like the issue that matters most to this worker is the lack of adequare parking in the company parking lot. The work place now employs more workers than parking spaces. Workers have brought the lack of parking spaces to the attention of management numerous times, but management doesn't want to spend the money to change the parking lot. Maybe this is "the issue"?
While asking questions, we of course want to be careful not to come off as nosy or that we are presuming to know our co-workers' opinions. We don't want to offend our co-workers or make them feel bad. If you feel that your co-worker may be uncomfortable, then ease up on the questions and talk about something else for a while.
Asking open-ended questions (questions that aren't answered with a "Yes" or "No") is a great way to advance the conversation, as they give your co-worker a chance to open up and speak at length about how they feel regarding specific work place issues. It's fine to start the conversation with "closed" questions, but you want to eventually move toward asking open-ended ones, so that your co-worker can have an opportunity to share more.
👩🏽 "Don't you hate how the supervisors just stand and stare while we work?" (closed question)
👲🏽 "Yes, it is really annoying." (Answer: Yes)
👩🏽 "What do you think we would need to do to resolve an issue like that?" (open-ended question)
👲🏽 "Well, I don't know... um... Maybe we could collect signatures for a petition or something? I have heard other workers complaining about this too, and I think that they might be willing to sign."
It will take time to identify a suitable issue to organize around. This is part of the process. Once you have identified the issue that resonates with the majority of your co-workers, we will be ready to move on to the next step.
Anger is the emotion that most often pushes us toward action, but it's not the only emotion involved. When we recognize unfair treatment at our work places, we may feel sad, defeated, and alienated. These are common when we are made to feel powerless. We feel anger when we recognize that we have the power to change things, and that things don't have to stay the way they are just because our bosses say so.
What does it mean to agitate? Well, another word for agitated is emotional. When we are agitated, naturally we become emotional. Our thoughts identify with these new emotions, and typically, some sort of action follows. This action is informed by our emotions, which were informed by our thoughts, which originated from the agitation. This is nothing mysterious, it's a common natural progression. There are steps we can follow to learn how to encourage and guide this progression so that it manifests in effective action.
In doing so, we want to be careful not to speak to our co-workers as if we are reading from a script, or berate them with an endless list of questions. The most important thing to remember is to make these conversations your own. The technique and structure is necessary, but you are not expected to recite the dialogue to your co-workers verbatim. Rather, you want to try your best to integrate these steps into your conversations, so that you may support and encourage your co-workers to stand up for themselves, and each other.
Don't be afraid to talk with your co-workers regarding what they like about the job. Many times, workers can be agitated towards action due to something they liked about their job being taken away. Has management recently changed something that the workers did not want to be changed? Maybe that could be "the" issue?
You may talk to some co-workers who you attempt to agitate, only to have them claim that they have no problems at all with the work place. They may say they like the job, we are all lucky to have one, and that people who complain are just ignorant or lazy. Hmm, now what? What do we do? A good approach may be to ask a question like, "If you were in charge, would you do anything differently? Or would you run the operation in the exact same way?"
Chances are, this co-worker must have noted some sort of process that they think could be more efficient. This may be a way to encourage them to open up and share their issues.
Another approach that may seem counter-intuitive, would be to ask this co-worker what specifically they like about the job. What do they like most about it? It could be that the co-worker has been misled by management into believing that the work place is perfect. Once you have examined what they like about the job, then you could start to question them on whether the work place truly lives up to these standards or not?
Venting our frustrations and complaining about work is good, but we want to eventually move beyond this, so that we can actually develop a plan to take action and hopefully resolve these issues! Your co-workers may get angry while speaking about their issues with the work place, and they have a right to be angry. You should validate their anger, and share your anger about the issue also.
One-on-one conversations with your co-workers are a great way to counter any kind of apathy. In many cases, what may look like apathy on the surface is really just a mask for fear, division, despair, or confusion. The last one especially, as many workers are confused on how a union works, what their rights to organize are, and many other aspects of their workplace. In a lot of cases, this is due to repeated campaigns of disinformation fed to these workers by management. In many workplaces, part of a new workers' "training" is to watch anti-union propaganda videos. It's no wonder so many workers feel confused and hopeless!
It's important to have personal conversations with your co-workers. You can have one-on-one conversations in any safe space where management can't overhear. This is to protect yourself and your co-workers. This is why having one-on-one conversations outside of work is best. If you can go for a coffee, tea, or a drink with your co-worker after work, then you can have open and honest communication without worrying about being overheard.
Talk to them, but more importantly, listen to them. Practice active listening during your one-on-one conversations to achieve the best results. Below are some tips on active listening.
You don't have to agree on everything, but try to find some sort of common ground with your co-worker.
For example, let's say your co-worker is angry about a workplace policy that stipulates mandatory re-training for any forklift drive who has an accident or near miss. You might disagree on that, since maybe you feel that drivers should be re-trained, to account for the safety of everyone at the workplace. But you can still find common ground to agree on around that issue. Maybe the high rate of accidents and near misses with drivers is due to lack of adequate training when the drivers are first hired. How many days is the training? Is the training long enough, or in depth enough? Is there a qualified instructor who does the training so drivers can ask questions, or is it computer-based training?
While you may not agree with your co-worker's main point, you can often find some common ground around the issue to agree on.
Above all: Don't rush an organizing conversation, especially if the conversation is not going the way you wanted it to. You are not expected to get every co-worker on board for an action from a single one-on-one conversation.
A powerful tool for agitational conversations is the identification of your co-worker's core values. To understand this better, ask yourself what your own core values are?
What are the five most important values in the world to you? Think about it and write them down.
The list might look something like this:
What are your co-workers' core values? Most likely, the issues at work that bother them the most are related in some way to one of their core values. If one of your co-workers is angry that they were passed over for an overtime offer, it's worth asking why that makes them so angry. Maybe they are saving for their child's university tuition (3 & 4). Maybe their partner has been working lots of overtime at their job to make ends meet and they would have loved the opportunity to help (2). Maybe they need the money, but they were hoping to work overtime this weekend, because they have already made plans with their family for the following weekend (2, 4, 5).
Linking your co-workers' issues with their core values is a good way to find out what the best approach would be to motivate them to take action.
Organizing can be scary sometimes. At the end of the day, you and your co-workers are taking a risk. Your co-workers' fears of being fired for organizing are not unfounded. That is precisely the reason why a personal connection is so crucial to an organizing effort. Everyone needs to feel safe, secure, and that they are on the same team. When Management tries to break up your group using divisive tactics (and they will), it's important that everyone feels that they are heard, respected, and most importantly, that they have each others' backs. Slogans like "We're all in this together", "Solidarity", and "An injury to one is an injury to all" are much more than just words. There is deep meaning behind those words.
It may be obvious to you that management at your work place will frequently ignore workers' complaints, refuse to apologize when they are wrong, and prioritize speed and production ahead of a safe work environment. Just because this is obvious to you, does not mean it's obvious to your co-workers. Management can be manipulative, and make workers feel that everything is their fault. Management can take their problems (such as a lack of equipment, for example) and then download those problems onto their workers (so that the workers end up fighting over who had which piece of equipment first).
Don't assume that your co-workers know management's motives. It helps to point these things out sometimes, so that every worker can see what they may not have noticed at first.
Similarly, a lot of workers do not know what their rights are, as far as labour law, specifically the Employment Standards Act. They don't go home and read the ESA after work, but it affects them regardless. Sometimes all that is needed for a worker to go from feeling hopeless to empowered is for someone to tell them "They can't do that to you" and show them their rights in writing.
It's important for your co-workers to realize that the working conditions they are angry about are not set in stone. There is someone who is responsible for "the way things are" and that is management. Learning and internalizing this can be a big turning point for people, and can provide a much needed sense of hope. It's natural to feel miserable at work when we feel like there's no chance of ever seeing anything change. But the reality is that we always have the power to change our working conditions, no matter how long they have been thought of as just "the way things are." When those who collectively oppose these conditions refuse to accept "the way things are", that is when we will start to see them change.
Sometimes, we aren't sure who is responsible for our working conditions. It's important to reveal this to your co-workers. The concept of changing unfair working conditions becomes more realistic and tangible to our co-workers once they learn who is responsible for those conditions. It's a lot easier for workers to get involved with taking on "Chris, the Manager" as opposed to taking on "the corporation."
In order to ensure the success of our eventual organizing drive, we need to analyze and understand the existing power structures in our work place. People have a habit of organizing themselves. It's human nature. Our job, as organizers, is to identify and build on the organizations that already exist (and they do). "How is that possible?" you might ask yourself. "I have wanted my work place to be organized forever. If workers were organizing right in front of my face, I think I'd know about it!"
Here are some examples of worker organizations that may already exist at your work place:
Surprised? Now that you have an idea of what kind of groups to identify, the next task is to identify the "leader" of each group.
Another term for these informal leaders would be "key person." In every group, there is a person who others admire, respect, and look up to. It's not that these groups sit down and consider each person, and then decide that one of them is the leader. It is unspoken, but somewhat obvious when you see it. They are the ones who can influence the group's decisions, because of the simple fact that the group trusts and respects them. These "key people" are the ones that organizers talk to when they want to get entire groups on the same page about work place issues.
First we want to draw an actual map or layout of our work place. You may be able to find a floor plan of your warehouse online, or maybe you can take a copy or snap a photo of one posted on the wall at your work place. A visual representation can help to make power relationships more visible. This will help us to get started setting up a network of worker communication.
Next, we will make a list of all the groups you can think of, with the names of all the "group members", as well as the "key person" of each group. A great way to start is to obtain an employee list, if possible. Your work place may already have this on your company web portal.
Then we can put a dot or some kind of marking for each "key person" in every work section. You could use a different colour marking for how supportive they are, and have the colours match up with a legend. A simple legend would show the following:
When you feel the time is right, ask your co-worker to get involved by helping out with an action. An action could be anything that is a planned, coordinated effort by workers to address an issue in the work place. The following are examples of work place actions:
When asking a worker to help with an action, make sure to be specific about what you need from them. Explain as much as possible and give as many details as you can about the planned action. This is important, as no one likes to feel duped, which may happen if your co-worker shows up to surprise "extra duties" they didn't agree to. That's a good way to ensure they never say yes again to anything. Make sure to be detailed, let everyone involved know what is required from them, and how long the action will take.
Make sure not to make the mistake of turning the "ask" into a guilt trip (i.e. "I am doing most of the work for this organizing drive, it would be nice to have some help"). You want workers to get involved because they believe in the cause, not due to guilt or a sense of obligation.
Finally, remember that your co-workers are not being paid to help, and you are not their boss. Don't treat them like employees. You are all equals.
There will most certainly be those co-workers who express disinterest in any kind of organizing. But don't give up on them. Remember that the goal is not to take a "company person" and radicalize them into a pro-union militant overnight. Think of yourself, and the steps it took for you to become involved and eventually active.
How long did it take you to decide that the best course of action was to learn how to unionize your workplace? It most likely didn't happen overnight, and the same goes for your co-workers. People change gradually. It's important to keep that in mind, and try not to be disappointed if things move slower than we would like.
Good luck with your endeavour to Agitate, Educate, and Organize your work place!