The problem with leaders

Marianne Garneau discusses the challenges of handling organic social leaders in a workplace organizing campaign.

Leaders are not natural workplace organizers

Leaders are not the people who show up to union meetings and can be relied on to get work done.

Leaders are not people who run for, or get elected to, union officer positions.

Leaders do not kick off organizing campaigns.

Leaders are not workplace activists.

Leaders are not usually people who speak up about rights in the workplace, unless something they care about has been trampled on.

Leaders have quiet influence on their coworkers

Leaders will likely always have that quiet influence.

Leaders are the people everyone looks to when the boss makes a change at work.

Leaders are also the people everyone looks to when it’s time to walk out.

If the leader walks, everyone walks.

If they don’t walk – if they changed their mind that morning for whatever reason – nobody walks.

Leaders are individualists

Leaders aren’t the people who step up to take on tasks.

Leaders aren’t used to taking direction from others.

Leaders are courageous but they don’t naturally bother to take risks.

Leaders are, surprisingly, fickle.

Leaders make decisions based on what they themselves think.

Leaders are free thinkers.

Leaders are apolitical and apathetic.

Leaders can be brought onside with the union, but they are most likely people you will have to work on again and again

Leaders think they’re a little bit above the fray.

Leaders take it upon themselves to mediate between the union (or pro-union side) and management.

Leaders are sympathetic towards managers.

Leaders sometimes cut side-deals for themselves with management.

You can’t organize without leaders

If you try to organize without leaders, the work will be harder and take longer, like building a pile of sand grain by grain.

If you try to organize without leaders, you can never be sure that the day of the vote or the action, they won’t scuttle it all.

Organizing would be easier if it wasn’t necessary to get the leaders on board.

You need to identify who the leaders are in a workplace.

Management knows who the leaders are

Already. Before any kind of union campaign kicks off.

You need to reach out to leaders, because management will.

You do that by finding out what the leader’s issue (grievance) is.

You need to think carefully about who should approach the leader.

You need that person to agitate the leader about their issue.

You need to frame things in terms of the leader’s interest.

You need to convince the leader that their interests align with their coworkers, not with management.

You need to appeal to the leader on the basis of things like respect and dignity in the workplace.

You need to convince the leader that worker strength in numbers is more powerful than management favor.

You need to convince the leader that the union is not perfect but it’s a good thing

If you can’t get a leader on board, at least neutralize them: talk to them candidly and get their commitment to at least not organize against you.

Leaders get on board the union when they see it is powerful and wins things.

Make the union powerful and win things.

Leadership is not governance

You cannot rely on leaders for the day-to-day work of the union, or for campaign momentum.

We don’t let campaigns be run by leaders, because they blow hot and cold, and because that isn’t democratic.

But we can’t survive or succeed without the leaders.

Keep your eye on the leaders, and keep assessing them and one-on-one’ing them.

Leaders will drift back to individualism.

Leaders care about having followers

Natural social leaders take the most work and you cannot succeed without them.

Much love and gratitude to the union activists, but you can’t build campaigns around them.

Campaigns are built with the nobodies, the average workers, the people you would least expect, who come from nowhere and roll up their sleeves and do the work.

These people are not the social leaders, but they do know some people, and when coworkers see them coming, they don’t think “oh boy, it’s so-and-so activist / union person again.”

If you get the majority of these people on board, the leaders will come.

For as much as leaders are individuals and independent thinkers, they do care what is popular, and where the center of gravity is.