Alex Riccio offers organizing advice about developing workers and heeding red flags.
Since August 2020 I have been tasked as an external organizer for a warehouse workers unionization campaign. In the spirit of Dave Kamper’s recognition that we, in organized labor, have a shared obligation to each other, I’ve distilled a number of personal lessons learned from the warehouse workers campaign that I wish to share with fellow organizers.
Being able to accurately diagnose where and how an organizing campaign fell short, or where improvements could have been even in successful campaigns, is an invaluable aspect of improving your craft. From the personal experience of this specific warehouse workers campaign, I’ve annotated, in no order of importance, the following organizing lessons:
A workplace organizing committee is a school for developing class struggle organization. Do not forget this.
Too many external organizers privately (or openly) believe that workers are incapable of administering their own unions and leading their campaigns. With such a mindset, these organizers inevitably make choices which strip away the agency of workers and concentrate decision-making in their own hands. Personally, I do not pose this lesson as a moral indictment against organizers with a top-down approach, but rather I’ve observed time and time again how this mindset leads to more campaign losses than victories. A union is about taking power away from bosses and putting it in the hands of workers, meaning, by definition, unions are class-struggle organizations. Your role as an outside organizer is to externalize everything you’ve learned to the members of an organizing committee so that they can build their own organization.
Peer-to-peer mentorship is crucial.
When workers adopt the role of teacher, rather than rely on an external organizer to be the “expert,” the campaign has the strength to go the distance. Cultivate this type of leadership with the full expectation that anyone, no matter how new they are to organizing, is capable of doing everything you can do.
Do not allow workers to channel communications exclusively through you. Put them in contact with one another.
In the same vein as both of the above lessons, this is a straightforward but easy-to-forget lesson. When you start observing that members of the organizing committee do not know each other as well as you know each of them, you need to deliberately change your communication methods. An external organizer often has the ability to do one-on-ones with each person on the organizing committee, and organic relationships of trust are built this way. Be careful to not encourage a dynamic, however, where a committee member immediately calls you up for all things campaign-related rather than their fellow committee.
Never ignore the red flag of an inactive committee member.
Harder to do in practice, and this lesson needs to be mindful that people can be developed into leaders even if they do not possess the skills or social influence from the onset, but if a worker rarely follows through on commitments they’ve agreed to take on then do not count them as part of the organizing committee. Try and try again to give them small manageable tasks, but you’ll likely end up expending a lot of time and energy on this person that can be more effectively spent elsewhere developing active committee members. Also, when an “all hands on deck” event happens in the campaign you cannot confidently expect that any responsibilities this person has agreed to take on will be fulfilled.
Do not hope to fill gaps in organizational capacity later.
There’s a tendency to hope that aspects of the organization needing attention will somehow be resolved down the road once things pick up or get more exciting in the campaign. But this rarely, if ever, happens. Instead, what’s more common to occur is you’ve pushed the campaign to a higher intensity phase of organizing where there is not adequate capacity to succeed. Rather than gaps getting filled the campaign is now vulnerable and can possibly unravel.
Address fear early, and practice confronting it.
Two crucial mistakes that occurred on the campaign I worked on were the organizing committee simultaneously overestimating their coworkers’ will and underestimating their managers’ ability to wage a counteroffensive. In organizing circles we often stress the importance of inoculation, preparing workers for how their bosses will respond, and while we did a lot of inoculation among the organizing committee on this campaign, what I’ve realized in retrospect was that the members of the committee did not fully believe that their management would be skillful in executing an anti-union campaign, and that their coworkers could be taken at their word when they said they weren’t afraid of the possible risks in organizing. The committee’s downplaying of the importance on inoculation had the additional consequence of committee members failing to properly inoculate their initially supportive coworkers, which left the campaign more vulnerable to a management attack. Err on the side of too much inoculation than too little, and be sure to incorporate roleplays where the workers act out confronting their managers to really make these lessons stick.
Offer different roles for union supporters early in a campaign.
A consistent mistake I’ve made is not having an available menu of campaign tasks and responsibilities that allow workers to develop the confidence they need to push themselves further in the future. Basic administrative tasks are the best for this approach, such as asking workers to help with data entry, crafting messages for future flyers, sending meeting reminders to committee members, graphic design when appropriate, etc. Realistically all of these responsibilities should belong to the workers anyway, but if you establish these tasks as a process of building their organizing skills you’ll likely see their confidence increase along with the campaign.
Have deadlines throughout each phase of a campaign, but resist the worry that progress is not happening fast enough.
There’s a difference between deadlines we drive on a campaign and deadlines imposed on the campaign. For the most part the timeline is entirely controlled by what the campaign is trying to accomplish, and it’s important to remind workers that the campaign will experience highs and lows in activity. Setting deadlines for accomplishing specific goals is helpful only insofar that it focuses activity and establishes a date for reflecting on how things are progressing.
When fatigue happens, slowing down is better than speeding up.
Along the lines of the above reflection, it’s common to hear workers express that the “gas is low” in the campaign. Continuing with this metaphor, a knee-jerk impulse is to push the pedal to the metal and see how many more miles you can quickly get out of the tank. Vaguely it’s imagined that this will somehow bring new energy to the campaign, but all you’ve really done is raced along on fumes a few more miles and now the tank is empty. A better reaction is to ease off the pedal a bit and make it to the next station to refuel. Reacting to perceived alarm bells often instills the wrong approach to organizing, because the organizing becomes impulsive. As an external organizer what I think is best is to encourage pauses for reflection and opportunities to allow workers to recharge. Again, small administrative tasks are helpful in this regard, and you’ll want to continually remind workers that a campaign is a marathon, not a 100-yard dash.
Do not allow a single committee member, or small core, to do all the work and contribute all the resources.
On this specific campaign only one committee member offered his house for union meetings, which made it inevitable for him to begin assuming he was the most committed person on the campaign and his perspective on any decision should carry the most weight. When he would get frustrated with campaign lulls, or his own view of how many people should participate in a meeting, he would attempt to cancel meetings within an hour of their scheduled time or threaten to drop out of the campaign entirely. When a small core, or one individual, perceive themselves as contributing more than others (which can often be true) there’s a high probability that they will develop bitter feelings towards other committee members and their coworkers, and they’ll begin acting like a small cadre rather than the nucleus of a mass worker organization.
Keep a detailed organizing journal for candid reflection!
As mentioned by Dave Kamper, surprisingly few organizers incorporate campaign journals as a key aspect of overall organizing. Honest reflection and self-critique is crucial for improving as an organizer. It’s become clear to me that some veteran organizers never developed this skill and it often correlates to them having a top-down view of their role in organizing.
Rather than peer through the side of the telescope where they can see their own mistakes, they often chalk up shortcomings to relying too much on the workers to organize, and become even more directive in their future campaigns. But without workers actively owning their unionization campaigns, the best that can be accomplished is a paper union, and no one is foolish enough to genuinely believe these paper unions have any power to affect changes in working conditions in the shop. What I hope is by sharing these notes from my own organizing journal that more organizers will be motivated to adopt this technique for their own lifelong development as an organizer, and be willing to be painfully honest with themselves about their own methods.
Alex Riccio is a labor organizer and host of the podcast Laborwave Radio.