Our ongoing series where we dig through the archives to bring you some old school gems that are still relevant today. This entry comes from the March 2008 issue of IW.
We want to do two things on the job at the same time: build organization and improve conditions. We could do these separately. For instance, we could build organization with no plan to improve conditions, like setting up a poker night or a knitting circle. Or we could try to improve conditions without building organization, by bribing or kissing up to the supervisor. Neither of those has much to do with being a union. Being a union means union builds organization by improving conditions, or improves conditions by building organization.
To build organization and improve conditions we have to take actions on the job. Action is the oxygen of a union. We start off by taking the existing informal organization on the job — the current relationships and communication and level of agitation — and directing this against the boss in the form of an action.
In planning an action, pick an issue that people care about. Ask, “who has the power to change this issue?” For instance, the nightshift supervisor in the receiving department at a factory probably can’t control the health insurance plan or introduce a new health plan. But they can control how they enforce policy on bathroom breaks and how respectfully they treat employees.
List the issues people want improved and who has control over each issue. List the lowest level boss with decision-making power on each issue. Generally speaking, the lower they are on the food-chain, the less it will take to make them do what you want. This is important early on when you only have a small group. Five people in one department probably won’t win much for all 100 people in the plant. But they could win improvements in that department that can be used to recruit more people in order to take on bigger issues and do more outreach. That’s building organization.
Early in a campaign it’s useful to focus on what could be called emotional actions or emotional pressure. Here’s what I mean: work is a headache for us, and to a lesser degree it’s a headache for our bosses. Generally it’s more of a headache for the boss the lower they are on the food-chain at work. Emotional action is when we offer our boss a choice: make work less of a headache for us or we will make work more of a headache for the boss. This is easier the lower the level of the boss. If the boss is a supervisor we see everyday, then they will care more about our opinions and how we treat them.
When we collectively confront the boss about the conditions that make our lives unpleasant, we give the boss an unpleasant experience. Think of this as sharing the wealth of misery that our jobs give us. By giving the boss a taste of their own medicine, making the boss take a helping of what our jobs force on us, we can start to force the boss to make small improvements on the job. That in turn helps us explain to our coworkers that we can improve our jobs by organizing together, and that if even more people get involved we can win even bigger improvements.