Common organizing mistakes

Organizing is difficult and every organizer makes mistakes. Here are some of the most common ones, and how to avoid them.

Building your campaign out of like-minded people

We all like to think our ideas are important and those who agree with us see what everyone else misses. But building a union is not about spreading the gospel, it’s about making working people see the power they have — and letting them write their own gospels. Don’t mistake the people who agree with you for the people the campaign needs. Workers with “left” politics can be leaders; they can also be cowards. They are usually just like everyone else: a mixed bag of contradictions. You have to look at the workplace as it is and identify the leaders in order to get everyone else on board. Left politics become more meaningful with an understanding of how others come to share those commitments through struggle.

Leading with the issues instead of listening

A very common shortcut is to assume you know what people need and try to lead with that in your organizing. This makes organizing look like a sales job where the union becomes a sort of product that is pitched to a passive audience. “Want paid childcare? Sign the union card!” But good organizing and working class power generally is based on deep, one-on-one connections of trust and confidence in shared power. This means you have to listen to what people want, no matter how badly you think they need something. All of us experience issues at work, which stem from a lack of power. Having a demand that we didn’t make delivered on does nothing to build our power to turn the tables on the bosses. The issues are not going to organize the shop for you. You need to listen to people and identify their grievances in order to find out how work affects them, because that’s what inspires them to fight.

Accomplishing tasks instead of organizing people

Every campaign can be broken down into steps and tasks and someone with some smarts and a good work ethic can move through all of those tasks and be no closer to organizing a union than when they started. This is especially dangerous when union staff are organizing because they will inevitably walk away from the workplace eventually and leave the workers to carry the burden. Organizing is not about following a formula or recipe, it’s about teaching workers the recipe (and how to teach the recipe to others). Here is the hard part. A good organizer should be prepared to let things go off the rails a bit knowing that workers will get the job done eventually. Every great organizer started somewhere, and probably made a lot of mistakes along the way. Workers need a chance to build up their own skills by making mistakes and learning from them. A task done not quite right by the workers themselves is more progress than a hundred tasks done by a good organizer.

Rushing to fight in public

This is the single biggest cause of a campaign tanking. Often there isn’t even a campaign, just a couple of leaders. Rookie organizers (and some experienced ones) tend to think that you just need to drop your banner and people will come flocking to you. Instead, the opposite happens: the boss sees the one person they need to knock out and comes down on them like a ton of bricks. With the agitator squashed out in the open, everyone else gets the message. On the other hand, some campaigns can be devastatingly effective without ever going public. And some make a strategic decision to go public at the right time and it’s the right move. But the public angle is very often overrated and it’s especially worth considering the size of your target. If your boss has ten stores and you are only strong in one, going public without the other nine will probably just lead to you getting cut out. Businesses like Wal Mart and MacDonald’s have a long track record of shutting down stores in order to keep out a union. In general, the bigger the business, the higher the bar for going public so that you don’t tank your campaign.

Being tactically narrow

Let’s say you pull off a march on the boss and it goes off without a hitch. The boss caves very quickly and everyone feels pretty good about it. You do it again and get good results in another part of the same business. By the third time you use this tactic the boss is almost certainly studying what you are doing and coming up with countermoves. It’s best not to use the exact same thing twice with the same boss within six months. A good tactic is good enough to also be worth saving — especially if it worked. But if you use it over and over and over again in the same context it will lose its effectiveness. It may come as a surprise but the same thing applies to big strikes.

Imposing deadlines on yourself

It may feel like time is of the essence, but it actually almost never is. A bad boss is going to be a bad boss next year and ten years from now and there will always be issues to organize around. Granted, a sense of momentum is a real concern: you do need to make sure no one thinks nothing is happening in the campaign. But the surest sign that you aren’t ready to take action is if you’re telling yourself that you have to take a certain course of action on a certain date. The trigger point for an action should instead be some indication you are ready. Just because the employer made some terrible move or the government succeeded in passing one set of bad laws does not mean those can’t be overturned later.

Not Inoculating enough

Inoculation is the practice of giving your co-workers a small dose of what the boss is going to come back at them with before the boss does it. If you are being insubordinate, you should prepare people to possibly face suspensions in a union workplace, or maybe even a firing to get you back in line in a non-union workplace. More often than not, workers will stand their ground if they decided to take action knowing what these things might happen, and they will fall back if they are surprised by the retaliation. As we put it above, it is always best to underpromise and overdeliver on discipline. It may mean you need to agitate a bit longer (this is partly why not imposing timelines is so important) but when the workers are ready to take action together knowing what the risks are, they are a far more potent force.

Framing fights as “all-or-nothing”

Often organizers and workers genuinely believe that they are in an existential, winner-take-all fight, but the truth is you can actually take a lot of damage and lose some pretty big fights as long as you don’t convince yourself that you’re done if you don’t win this one. Most fights end in partial victory and that’s okay — partial victories can add up pretty quick, plus you also learn from these experiences about what bigger victories would take. Sometimes organizers think they need to tell people we are doomed if we don’t win, but this is bad organizing. It doesn’t build people up, just drives them towards desperation. Instead people need to learn to have an accurate assessment of their own power and what they need to increase it. 

Framing fights as one-punch

Even the most dramatic job actions like a general strike or some kind of mass wildcat are not in themselves going to win in most cases. A single dramatic instance is a great story that leftists like to tell themselves but more often than not, steady agitation and carefully building a campaign or union are what get lasting results. A single big strike might get you that good contract language but even then you need to enforce it or else the language is only as good as an arbitrator thinks it is. For this reason, you always need to ask yourself, when planning an action, “then what?” Failing to do this, and failing to prepare your co-workers for the possibility that your first punch doesn’t land can lead to them thinking direct action doesn’t work – just like everything else. In general, it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver.

Focusing on where you are strong instead of where you are weak

This is one I am still getting over. If you have five different parts of the workplace and one is really well-organized and really strong, they don’t need your attention. The people who are struggling do. People like to think they can hammer down a win in one place and then spread it around but what actually happens is people hammer down a win in one place and it reinforces to the others that there is something magical about the people in that part of the business and the other parts just don’t have it. I’ve heard it said a union is only as strong as its members – this is kind of bullshit because it’s a passive attitude. A union is only as good as its long-term plan to get concessions from the employer. That plan has to involve developing people in the union.

Ventriloquizing the workers

Often, if another organizer disagrees about a decision made in a campaign, the organizer from that campaign will defend it by saying it was what the workers wanted. They’ll say it was the workers’ idea and it came organically out of discussions, instead of owning the fact that an organizer is in a leadership role and has an obligation to give advice and to wear that advice. Campaigns where decisions are made by “consensus” are the easiest to do this with, because no one votes on anything and there isn’t a culture of staking out positions and having disagreement noted even while deciding on how to forge ahead.

All organizers sometimes disagree with what the workers want to do and conceding is okay but you owe it to everyone to be clear you are disagreeing and why. But disavowing and concealing your leadership role as an organizer actually shows an inability to push yourself out of the equation because you are not taking responsibility for your leadership role in a campaign.

Conclusion: the headwaters of all trouble

There is a tremendous amount of pressure on us as organizers. And unlike working on the legal aspects of union business or the administration of a union, organizing deals more with qualities than with quantities. This sometimes makes it harder for us to be honest with ourselves about how we are doing. It’s easy to drift into a sort of manipulation that is motivated entirely by good intentions. But that makes pushing ourselves to be clear about our goals and methods even more important.

Almost all organizing mistakes come from two sources. One is doing what seems obvious instead of what is actually right — a lot of problems flow from following your gut and doing the work intuitively instead of strategically and systematically. The other is not knowing how to take yourself out of the equation.

A political commitment that is far deeper than policy positions is an understanding that all organizing that builds working people up to be more independent and more critical of authority (including our own) is good, and that which makes them dependent on “left” institutions — including unions and political parties — is a step back.

Nick Driedger is the Director of Labour Relations and Organizing for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.