Learn about the workplace, talk to colleagues, and form an organising team to build workers’ power. This is a first in a mini-series of articles where we try to demystify workplace organising by presenting a clear, methodical approach. It begins with workplace mapping! So, what is it?
Knowledge is power! Workplace mapping is a process to learn about the workplace and to visualise it. It helps you understand the geography, the social networks, and the work process itself. This knowledge will be invaluable as it will inform any strategy for a workplace campaign.
Mapping means several different things:
1. Gathering contact information.
Collect contact information for as many workmates as possible. There may be a webpage with a long list of colleagues’ email addresses and phone numbers. If there isn’t, instead of asking each and every worker, try to be creative. Maybe you could distribute a petition about a local cause and ask your colleagues to sign it? Beyond this, is a good idea to get copies of different workers’ contracts and the company’s policies and procedures. Remember to be discreet!
2. Charting the workplace.
Survey the physical layout of the workplace. Draw it out on a big piece of paper, starting with your own office or area of the building. Mark out the entrances, fire exits, and windows (very important, a snitch could eavesdrop from an open window!). Include details such as desks, walkways, cubicles, machines, conveyor belts.
Where is the boss’ office and the canteen? Where are the changing rooms, storage rooms, cleaning cupboards, stairwells? Where do deliveries take place?
Now it is time to add motion! Mark out the flow of movement, the route that workers commonly take. You can draw them in different colours for different groups of staff; which few rooms does your supervisor flitter between? Are there particular areas that get crowded or bottlenecked, such as a ‘junction’ between a couple of main corridors? Do people often hangout on the main stairwell? Are there specific places that certain workers congregate? Ask tactical questions as you are charting your workplace; would it be safe to have a confidential chat in the smoking area?
3. Economic mapping.
Learn about the production process itself, the things that have to get done in order for a product to be made or a service to be delivered. To put it another way, work is already organised, by and for the bosses! You need to learn how.
Though not as many of us work in traditional factory settings anymore, it can be useful to think of your own job in a similar way, as a thought exercise to get your brain on the right track. Which specific tasks need to get done, and how is the overall workforce divided up to do them? Are there different ‘departments,’ what do they do? Which tasks require lots of workers to be concentrated together? What are the raw materials, where do they get delivered, and who delivers them? Think creatively and strategically; what would happen if this or that group of workers suddenly stopped working? If the porters did a slow-down at the delivery gates, who would it affect?
You will quickly realise that the production process goes far beyond your own workplace. This is why industrial unions and the IWW method is so vital! Which other workers and workplaces do you think you should link up with? If you are a cleaner, have a look at the brands on the side of the products that your supervisor orders in bulk. Where do they come from, does the chemical factory have a workplace union? You could reach out and form a relationship with them. If you work at a pub, do any local breweries supply you? Which company delivers the barrels every week? You should ask your IWW branch for insights; a fellow worker might ‘know someone,’ or you might even be able to convince a wobbly to salt that workplace!
4. Social mapping.
This is a vital part of mapping; learn about the people you work with. Who is friends with who, who is the boss’ relative, who is sympathetic to a union, who might be a snitch? Are there social groups? What are the common languages and who speaks them?
There will be a lot of crossover with the economic mapping; workers in close proximity will likely form their own friend groups. The cleaners will probably all be friends, and some of them will be pals with the forklift drivers. The forklift drivers go all over the worksite, and this driver is good friends with this person, that driver absolutely hates that manager etc.
This information will help you decide who to talk to first when you start forming your organising team. It will also reveal who you should avoid!
5. Identify social leaders.
Figure out who is well respected and influential. Who is the person that everyone goes to when they have a problem? Does anyone have a history of standing up to the boss? Are there some workers who are very popular and get on well with lots of colleagues?
However, whether or not a worker is influential goes beyond their sociability. It can relate closely with their role in the production process. As hinted above, the forklift drivers go all over the place, they probably know loads of people in lots of different circles. They might be able to pass information between workers who otherwise never get a chance to talk to one another. A popular worker in such a role would be an incredibly powerful person to have onboard! Remember, if you don’t get the social leaders on side, the boss will!
Your Job Your Union!
Mapping is an evolving process. As your organising team increases, your map and understanding of the workplace will become more nuanced. But these basics are more than enough for you to get started!