Some time ago Workers Power ran a column in which a Fellow Worker promoted the idea of “Know the Union, Hear the Union, See the Union” as way of explaining how a healthy campaign sustains itself and grows. Having participated in some organizing, I found myself often re-reading that piece as a source of inspiration and advice. I hope to expand the “Know the Union...” organizing approach by offering my thoughts on how to put it into practice.
In any workplace there are going to be some workers who will quickly be attracted to an organizing drive. Perhaps they’ve been involved in organizing before; perhaps they have some level of ideological agreement; or perhaps they simply have a high level of grievances. In any case, these workers “know the union” and typically come together to form the initial organizing committee.
For other co-workers, they’ll have to be persuaded to join the campaign through a series of one-on-one conversations. They need to “Hear the Union” to get agitated about workplace issues and realize they don’t have to face them alone.
Most workers, however, fall into the third camp: “See the Union”. They’ll have to see the power of collective action before they get involved. As our Fellow Worker summed up in the previous column:
"Here's how we move the workers who need to see the union in action. The workers who know the union organize and build relationships and leadership among the folks who hear about the union. Together both groups take action to change small issues. This demonstrates in practice what a union is. Other workers see the union in action and start to understand that change is really possible."
For our friend, “Know the Union...” proved helpful when organizing slowed and workplace militants got frustrated at the pace of growth. “Know the Union...” encouraged workers to get ‘back to the basics’ of successful organizing: one-on-one conversations and group meetings to plan and undertake winnable direct action grievances. It also demonstrated the role the existing leadership should play in instituting a continual process by which co-workers are led up the “hear, see, know” ladder until a culture of solidarity and collective activity is instituted in a workplace.
There’s another important lesson to take away from this: many self-identified radicals have little real-world organizing experience. This is okay. Like anything else, organizing takes practice. What we do have, however, is a wealth of grand arguments supporting class struggle and a vision for a post-capitalist future. Because of this there’s a temptation to ‘intellectualize’ the organizing process. Speaking from personal experience, I know what it’s like to feel unsure about doing something new, especially when it comes to organizing. It’s tempting to fall back on something we’re more comfortable with—like making the argument for why we need a revolutionary union.
Reality, however, is much more complicated than a well-phrased argument. Instead of trying to ‘win the organizing argument’ we’re much better off building relationships of trust with our co-workers. Through this relationship, we engage our co-workers in small scale winnable actions. These actions, in turn, lay the groundwork for larger struggles and deeper conversations.
To put it another way, workers—conscious of it or not—undertake individual anti-capitalist acts all the time. Workmates, however, often need to see collective activity in action before they’re willing to join a union. From there, it’s involvement in collective struggle that opens a space for us, as radicals, to begin having discussion about class, capitalism, and the labor movement.
As organizers, “Know the Union” not only helps us not only to remember that organizing is a process, but forces us to recognize that many times “action precedes consciousness”. The most important thing organizers do is not winning arguments or making rousing speeches, but actually building the relationships that form the basis of any successful campaign.