When organizing your workplace feels utterly impossible

A column by Liberté Locke on some of the hurdles and frustration one encounters in workplace organizing.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 3, 2014

You’ve gotten your red card, attended several organizer trainings, countless branch meetings and union socials. You’ve gone to events where you have heard organizers tell their stories and have subscribed to their blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. You’ve read all the labor books you can find. You’ve signed every petition and attended every picket. All this and you still feel like everything is two steps forward and six steps back in your workplace organizing. You want to proudly work wearing that union label. You want success for the big reasons: capitalism keeps us enslaved. And for the smaller reasons that nag you in your sleep: people who matter to you think you’re ridiculous for doing any of this. Sharing victories adds legitimacy.

We have to believe that we can do this work. We have to know that as fact. We all have our feelings of isolation in this world: feeling not good enough, that our bodies or minds aren’t right, and that we made the wrong choices. We have lifelong battles to accept ourselves or to ignore how much we don’t accept ourselves. Confidence is not something focused on in U.S. culture. This society relies on making you not feel good enough in order to push you into spending your last dime on something that you believe can make you stronger, prettier, smarter or sexier.

Then there’s the very nature of subservient work: you’re placed into a job with “superiors” that are younger than you (I’m 31 and have a 19-year-old supervisor) or have less experience than you. We’re told that these people are inherently worth more than we are to the job and the world in general. We’re supposed to follow work orders without question, often to the point of injury or death. You have been told that you are worth little but actually believe in your bones that you are worth something. You have contributions to make to the world through your community, your family, and your job(s). You can act against capitalism. It serves the bosses to hate ourselves.

In order to get our co-workers to fight together, we have to believe we can. The majority of your co-workers, like you, have had a lifetime of having their self-esteem chipped away at. We have been broken down by authority figures our whole lives, be they police, classmates, housemates, intimate partners, parents, teachers, social workers and our bosses. We’re broken and molded into participating in this system that we never chose. We work ourselves to death in order to buy goods and services that we then use to keep ourselves functioning enough to keep working. Working students are working their way through school in order to get that next job, if careers even exist anymore. They are often disheartened to learn that all the crap that they went through at their old job exists at their new one. For folks that grew up poor, confidence is much harder to come by. We grew up watching our parents struggle. We promised ourselves and them that we would find a path out of this poverty and that we would take them with us. We feel guilty for not doing better by ourselves and by our families. We swear to everyone that we’ll work hard and it will “pay off.” We pull hard at our bootstraps to watch the system snip the line time and again and we keep pulling.

This cycle can end with us. We have to believe. We keep looking up for instruction when we should be looking to those at our side: our neighbors, our friends, and our co-workers. Their ideas, like ours, are worthwhile. If you don’t believe you are capable of organizing then your co-workers won’t believe it either.

When I came into the IWW Starbucks Workers Union I had some large shoes to fill. I was afraid. I felt alone and ill-prepared. For the first couple of years of organizing most of my actions were decided by asking myself what I felt could turn into a “badass story.” Will I be the mouse or the lion? I don’t care about how arrogant that sounds. I needed some arrogance to counter my low self-esteem.

I also don’t care because it worked. I found myself shaking when talking to the boss. I was saying things I knew we weren’t “allowed” to say and refusing to be mistreated. These showdowns with bosses led to getting what I wanted on the job. Once a busser overheard a district manager say that they needed to make sure the union knew “whose house this is.” The shop committee then started declaring at work, “Whose house is this? This is our house.” We made constant references to the bosses being “guests in our home.” It was a huge confidence-builder.

Walk into your job like you own it. It can’t operate without you. It’s important to exude confidence, even if you don’t feel confident. Try, even if it feels hopeless, because without the effort you’ve accepted defeat. And if you feel unable, then what hope do you have to offer your co-workers? Workers have been organizing in various forms for hundreds of years. Many of them haven’t had the resources and support you can have access to in the IWW. If they could, and can, do it, then so can you.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (January/February 2014)



10 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by backspace on January 3, 2014

This is a really good article, and with respect to the writing style I think it gets the balance perfect between a 'work life' account and the making of a coherent set of points. I also think these kinds of reality-checks are really important to keep theory and practice tightly integrated - if this isn't done, the slick militant imagery that goes with radical politics (and/or unionism) can give a false impression of glamour to the work, when often it is long, boring, and difficult - without this being explained with the intention of getting people to come to terms with it as early as possible, I think there is a tendency for the less die-hard to drift away from activity.

I'm also pleased to see a full engagement with the really personal aspects of workplace activity, I think these are generally swept under the carpet because often there is an implicit assumption that because we believe in collective responsibility this somehow means that we ought to externalise ourselves from our own individual feelings and maintain a bad kind of optimism that brushes aside difficulties (rather than the good, but less obvious, kind - like this article - that is prepared to look the worst areas in the eye with the intention to deal with them. It is optimistic in the sense that it rates other militants highly enough as to assume they are capable of critically doing this).

Then there’s the very nature of subservient work: you’re placed into a job with “superiors” that are younger than you (I’m 31 and have a 19-year-old supervisor) or have less experience than you.

On this, I once worked somewhere (aged 18 at the time) where the average age of the workforce was between 40-60, most had worked there for a very long time and had a deep passion for the (public) service, and they promoted an unqualified 21 year old with a fraction of the years of experience of the older workers, straight into a full managerial position. My co-workers referred to him by the name 'little shit' ... they had all liked him before he was promoted, but to then be ordered around by someone they had shown the ropes only a couple of years earlier was just insulting.


10 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by pgh2a on January 4, 2014

I agree this is a good article. But I think it needs to be read in conjunction with another article about how to initially integrate oneself into the workforce at a new job. Head down, ears out, building social connections and parallel support system to build up self-confidence while building the power to challenge the boss. For if we take action as individuals it can be inspiring to others but if done prematurely, we can just as easily find ourselves out at the curb, without the opportunity to build that self-confidence in our fellow workers to protect us and our jobs when we do take that stand that will inevitably be necessary.


10 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by EdmontonWobbly on January 4, 2014

So you gonna write it?


10 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by backspace on January 5, 2014

pghwob, agree with those points (ie. social mapping, listening first and building a committee before acting) but I think the IWW 101 is entirely built around those and so i'm not sure there is much danger for those taking an interest in this article to not already be aware of the importance of those points.