You're working, or just started work somewhere where there is no active collective workers' organisation. What can you do to get organised? This guide will help you get started.
Nowadays many workplaces have no active workers' organisation. Depending on whereabouts you are in the world and what sector you work in there may or may not be much of a trade union presence. And even if there is it may just be a skeleton organisation which only represents workers with individual problems, and is unable to win demands of management. Or worse, it could be actively in cahoots with management against the workers.
Hardly, surprisingly, therefore that one of the most frequently asked questions by workers is - "What can be done at my workplace to improve things? It seems impossible, the bosses are too strong."
We would suggest that the following should be considered:
Ask questions and listen to the answers
Where do you begin? Some people when they first feel that they have been treated unfairly fly into a rage or start loudly crusading against the boss. This can be dangerous. Management jealously guards its authority in the workplace, and when you begin to question authority, you become a threat. In most workplaces, from the moment you begin to question authority, you become a troublemaker in management’s eyes. If you have never before made any waves where you work, you may be shocked, hurt or angered by how quickly management turns against you. This is a good reason to be discrete when you begin to talk to others.
Talk to your fellow workers
Ask them what they think about what’s happening at work. What do they think about the problems you’re concerned about? Listen to what others have to say. Get their views and opinions. Most people think of an organiser as an agitator and rabble-rouser (and there are times when an organiser must be those things), but a good organiser is first of all one who asks good questions and listens well to others. Having listened well, you should be able to express not only your own views and feelings, but also those of your colleagues. The main concerns could be pay, but this isn't always the case. Sometimes, their concerns can be reactionary, such as keeping immigrant workers out, so you will need to be aware that not all concerns are necessarily progressive.
Keep a record of workers' concerns, and any significant incidents at your workplace such as an accident, a disciplinary or even threatening behaviour by a manager.
Learn about the past
Try and find out what other attempts, if any, have been made to organise the workers. It may be that there was once a union but it has collapsed.
Do some general reading around organising in the workplace and the lessons people have learned. Our workplace activity tag has dozens of accounts of organising. If any issues come up as part of your organising, you should also feel free to ask for any assistance in our organise forum.
Try to find allies
Almost inevitably there will be some people who are more concerned about the problems we face than others, and a few of those people will want to do something about it. Those few people now form the initial core of your "organisation". You might ask the two most interested people to have coffee or lunch with you, introduce them to each other, and then ask, "What do you think about this?" If they are indeed ready to do something and not just complain, then you are almost ready to begin organising.
Map your workplace
Knowledge is power. Or at least it is the beginning of power. You will want to know everything you can about your workplace and your employer. This will be a long term, on-going process of education.
Try and find out as much as you can about the company you're working for. Does it have more than one factory or shop? Is it a public company, how many people work for it, who owns it? Companies have to do publish the accounts, so getting hold of these from the relevant agency (such as Companies House in the UK) can be extremely useful. Try and build up a picture of the firm and people who work for it - for example, an increasing problem is that workers are 'off the cards' and not working legally. Some workers may have problems with their immigration status.
You should begin your research with your department. Management has long understood the value of identifying informal work groups, their natural organisers, and their weak links. In fact, one of the main thrusts of management training is to develop strategies to alter the psychology of the workplace.
For example, the multi-national United Parcel Service has developed its psychological manipulation techniques into a fine art. The UPS managers’ training manual, entitled Charting Spheres of Influence, shows how to map the workplace to identify the informal work groups, isolate natural organisers or instigators in these groups, exploit the weak links, and in the end, break up the groups if they can’t be used to management’s advantage.
While most companies have not developed their techniques into the fine Orwellian art that UPS has, many do use some of the same methods. Have outspoken workers, instigators or organisers been transferred, promoted into management or singled out for discipline? Are work groups broken up and rearranged periodically? Has the layout of the workplace been arranged to make communication between workers difficult? 1
Do you get to walk around on your job? Who does? Who doesn’t? Are certain people picked on or disciplined by management in public? How does this affect the rest of the workforce? Do you feel you are always under surveillance? You get the point. All of the above can be used to break up unity and communication between workers in your workplace. Incidentally, this training does not make our employers invincible, or make our efforts any less worthwhile (despite all the training their management had received, UPS workers won a mass strike in August 1997).
Let’s say that you have an important message to communicate, but you don’t have the time or resources to reach every one of your fellow workers. If you can reach the natural organisers in the informal work groups and get them on your side, you can bet that the word will get around to everyone. Once organisers have been identified and agree to co-operate, it is possible to develop a network which can exert considerable power and influence.
Informal work groups also have the advantage of creating certain loyalties among their members. You can draw on this loyalty to figure out unified strategies for problems, and take advantage of people’s natural tendency to stick up for those who are close to them.
Besides working with the group organisers, it is important to draw in the loners too. More than likely, their apathy, isolation, or maybe anti-union ideas stem from personal feelings of powerlessness and fear. If collective action can be pulled off successfully and a sense of security established through the group’s action, fear and feelings of impotence can be reduced.
If you have got a particularly tough character in your workplace who seriously threatens unity, don’t be afraid to use the social pressures that work groups can bring to bear to get that person back in line. This applies to supervisory personnel too, especially the supervisor who likes to think he or she is everyone’s pal.
The balance of power
The bottom line for this type of workplace organisation is to tilt the balance of power in the workers’ favour. It can win grievances for example. If grievances remain individual problems or become the responsibility of union officials, the natural organisation and loyalty that exist among work groups is lost. Chances are that the grievance is lost too.
However, if the work groups can be used to make a show of unity, the threat that the work process could be disrupted can be enough to force management into a settlement. Grievances can only be won when management understand that a grievance is no longer the concern of an individual, but instead has become the concern of all, and that problems lie ahead unless it is resolved.
When the time is right hold a meeting of those you have identified as being interested in getting organised. Do not be surprised if some workers do not turn up, don't get disappointed. The meeting should be as open as possible and discuss all issues which concern workers. The most obvious concern will be how to get the mass of workers involved. Every person who attends the meeting should be expected to see if there are other workers who can be got involved. Stress the importance of ensuring that management doesn't get to know about what's happening.
You and colleagues may decide that you want to try to join an official trade union and get recognition with your employer. You should think hard about this form of action, as it may or may not be appropriate depending on your place of work. Workplaces with high staff turnover and lots of agency workers, for example, will be unlikely to be able to maintain a functional union organisation. Similarly, a union will only be able to win from management what you and your colleagues are able to obtain by your actions. So ultimately what counts is what action you are prepared to take collectively, rather than the union. And joining in official union will tie you into official procedures and labour laws which may be highly restrictive in terms of what action they permit you to take.
At some point a leaflet will need to be produced and either distributed secretly at work or by friends when the workers are leaving the workplace. These actions will undoubtedly bring to management's attention that some workers are involved in trying to organise.
When it is felt appropriate (which could be a period of a few weeks to many months) another larger meeting of all interested workers will need to be organised. Use the meeting to draw up a list of grievances and demands. The meeting will need to elect spokespersons to approach management.
If you are going to embark on some form of campaign, you may want to try to get support, especially practical support from outside your workplace. There may be local community groups, church groups, political organisations, anarchist groups etc which may be able to assist with practical initiatives such as leaflet production, a place to meet, people to help picket, etc.
Don't allow negotiations with bosses take place behind closed doors. Keep all meetings transparent.
It won't be easy
Be sure that the workers know that their actions may lead to the threat of dismissal and/or dismissal. Never con workers into believing it will be easy. Discuss what this would mean if all or some workers are dismissed as this will require a decision to either strike and/or occupy the workplace. The situation in countries where unions are outlawed is different and it will be impossible for workers to approach management. In such circumstances, sabotage of production may be appropriate.
Read more about taking different kinds of action at work...
Keep a record of you attempts at organising - workers struggles are so rarely recorded that valuable experience is being lost and workers have to go through the same problems. Many of them could be avoided. Feel free to post your account to our workplace activity tag .
This article was updated significantly by libcom.org in 2012. Originally it was edited by libcom in 2005 from articles by the Industrial Workers of the World and another from an original article in Revolutions Per Minute issue 1, in 1996, as then produced by the members of the Colin Roach Centre, updated in February 2003.
- 1 There is an interesting article in our library here on informal work groups and management’s opposition to them by Swedish group Kampa Tillsammans.