A short series of basic organising tips from the IWW Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England region.
Workplace Organising Basics - IWW
1. Mapping – The Basics
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!
2. One-To-One Conversations – The Basics
Forming relationships with workmates is the backbone of organising. This next piece in our mini-series about workplace organising is all about one-to-one conversations. Listening to your workmates, learning about the issues, and guiding them into taking action!
Why are one-to-one conversations the best way to talk to workers?
1) Everyone has their own ideas and their own specific issues. You will only find out by asking them directly. If you only discuss these things in a group setting, some people will dominate and others will not be heard.
2) One-to-one chats are secure. You have control over the conversation, you can give out sensitive information at your discretion. It is better to find out that someone is the boss’ cousin in a one-to-one conversation than at a mass organising meeting later!
3) If you start with a mass meeting or a flyer, you will alert the boss right away. They will start their union-busting activity before you have had a chance to lay the groundwork. The one-to-one approach means that things progress at your pace.
Who should you have one-to-one conversations with?
This can be different in each context, but you could start with the influential workers and/or those who you think are most keen. If you have started mapping your workplace and you have a grasp on the main social networks, the information that you have gathered so far should help a lot when deciding who to talk to.
However, you might find it a lot easier to start with colleagues who you get along well with. This is certainly best if you are a bit nervous about the prospect of talking to other colleagues, it will help to boost your confidence and give you practice.
When and where should you have one-to-one conversations?
We recommend that you try to have a predetermined meet-up after work, or make the most of an unexpected opportunity you get out of work hours. For instance, maybe your child goes to football practice one a week and you sometimes bump into a colleague with their child there? You may be able to squeeze in a ten minute chat in the car-park while you both wait for the kids to finish up.
It is also very common, however, for these one-to-one conversations to happen at work, in small chunks over a couple of weeks. Ultimately, it comes down to what is easiest and most convenient for you both. If you do have these conversations at work though, BE DISCREET! You do not want to have anyone overhear you. If you have been ‘charting’ the workplace, your map will reveal some useful spots to have conversations, as well as some bad spots (not near open windows or on stairwells!)
What should you say?
This is where Agitate, Educate, Inoculate, Organise, Unionise comes in! This is NOT proselytising about the “historical righteousness of labour’s cause,” or converting someone to a specific political ideology. Quite the opposite; you want to know exactly where your co-worker is at. You want to know what they are angry about and guide them towards the positive idea that we have the power collectively to solve any problem.
A vital skill to develop is active listening. Remember the 80/20 rule: 80% listening, 20% responding.
AGITATE: Find out what the worker’s grievances and issues are. What makes them angry? Ask further questions; how do these problems impact them personally? Collectivise the issues; “you’re not alone, a few of us are annoyed at that too.” They might mention a problem that you have not heard of before. Ask if they know of other workers who are suffering as a result of it?
EDUCATE: Ask your colleague how they think things could be different. What do they think needs to change? Suggest that there are always solutions and if you all stick together you can take collective action to make it better. You should read up on the struggles going on in your industry across country and around the world. Give your co-workers examples of victories.
INOCULATE: All workers are fearful of organising. Be realistic, aware of difficulties and risks. Bosses will lie and try many tactics to stop you, even illegal ones. But if you stick together, if you are disciplined and organised, you will be safer than you would be alone.
ORGANISE: We need doers, give them a task. Have a list of easy, risk-free jobs and ask them to do one; “you’re mates with John, right? Can you ask him about the recent changes to the cleaners’ breaks?” If they do it, they’re a keeper!
And finally, UNIONISE: All workers are stronger and safer in a union. IWW can give advice, education, training, and resources to support workers to take action together. This is a long-term movement and this is how we grow. Bring ’em in!
These are the absolute basics of having one-to-one conversations with workmates. At first they will be awkward and you will make mistakes, but don’t worry, you will get really good at them with practice! Good luck and get chatting!
3. Build a Workplace Organising Team – The Basics
The third in our workplace organising basics mini-series. So far you have learned how to map your workplace and how to have one-to-one conversations with your workmates. Now you need to make a team capable of fighting the boss!
Making the team.
With your social map and from the conversations you have had with co-workers, you should be able to identify colleagues who are trustworthy, influential in the workplace, and want to do something to resolve problems. These colleagues will be the basis of your workplace organising team.
The first step is to bring them together; have a meeting to introduce yourselves, and plan a set of ongoing tasks. You should try to include these workers in the mapping that you have already started, and help them have their own one-to-one conversations with other colleagues. Invite them to the IWW so you can all have training and receive ongoing support! Get them clued up so you can begin to act as a unit!
Now that you have a small team you should be able to spread across the workplace. Make use of all your skills, contacts, relationships, and clout! Talk to colleagues in different departments, zones, language and social groups, and learn about the main issues across the workplace.
You should meet regularly to discuss progress and to support and encourage one another. After each meeting everyone should have a task to complete that week. These tasks do not need to be daunting; they could be as simple as getting a phone number for one of the kitchen staff who seems pretty sound. Try to find a balance that keeps everyone involved and valued, while not being burned out. There is no need to rush, go at your own pace and be sustainable. But never be a talking shop!
Continue to invite trustworthy workers into the team. You will begin to gather a list of common grievances and you will get a feeling as to which groups and individual workers are angry and want to do something. Now it is time to think about your first campaign!
Your first campaign.
Look through your list of grievances. Which issues impact which workers? You might decide that you need more experience and confidence before going after a big problem, so you could practice by tackling a small and simple problem first. On the other hand, there may be one overriding problem that a lot of workers have, and for which the members of the organising team came together in the first place.
There is no perfect blueprint as to how you do this, but you need information about the issue itself. What is it specifically? Who does it impact primarily? Are there additional problems that are caused or made worse by it?
Think POWER: who has the ability to resolve the problem? Is there a reason for why they might they not want it to be changed? Think about the alternative, what you would like to happen instead.
The IWW advocates an escalating strategy. Start with the simplest, easiest, least risky tactic. Try a collective letter signed by all of the workers impacted, clearly stating the problem and what should be done to resolve it. Include a date for when you expect a resolution.
If this doesn’t work, you should progress with tactics that move into the terrain of direct action, starting with the least risky. Here are some direct-action tactics you could use. Remember that you can do so much more than strike!
Expect union-busting. Your employer will try to stop you from organising and campaigning, legally or illegally. This can take many forms: from hiring an “independent” consultant to kick issues into the long grass; getting workers and supervisors to organise against you; holding “captive audience” meetings; pressuring workers individually with sob-stories to guilt them out of taking action; and sometimes illegally dismissing you. Your workplace organising team needs to read up and be aware of the various tactics a boss will use and “inoculate” your colleagues so they are less effective. The Union-Busting Playbook is a fantastic resource that organisers should become well-versed with.
If you have manoeuvred around the union-busting and your campaign is successful, tell colleagues about it! These little victories not only make our work life easier, they give us confidence and show that we are not powerless! You can inform workers about wins in a subtle way, so that you do not bait the boss into retaliating against you. Though, of course, it is vital to continue to inoculate workers that the boss could start union-busting at any time. It is not worth telling the boss that “we are a union” until you cannot achieve anything else without needing to do so.
In this mini-series you have learned how to map your workplace, talk to colleagues about issues, and make a team to fight back! You now have the basic tools to build the power of the working class!
Get organising, fellow worker!
4. Bonus Tips for Organisers
The final article in our miniseries about the basics of workplace organising. Below is a list of additional hints and tips from experienced organisers. They should nicely compliment the organising method that you have learned from the previous pieces.
First, DO NO HARM!
This is the Hippocratic Oath for organisers. You are dealing with your own and your colleagues’ livelihoods. Be patient, do not take unnecessary risks.
Keep a DIARY!
Be consistent, be on time, and do exactly what you say you will do. Do not take on too much work for yourself, and do not make promises you cannot keep. It is better to work a little bit slower than to rush around and leave things unfinished.
Get people active.
Workers develop and grow confidence through activity. Is someone interested? Have a small task ready they can do (see our previous pieces about mapping and one-to-ones for ideas.) Do not patronise, but do not always presume they know exactly what to do either. Start with small, easy tasks and scale up.
Take co-workers where they are at.
Listen to workers and see where they are coming from. Do not presume to know their opinions and do not presume to know the reasons for them. Try not to totally write people off if they’re bad on something; chances are they can be moved…
However, you do not have to put up with bigotry or other abusive behaviour. If a colleague is being disrespectful, you could ask if a colleague who gets along with them can talk to them about it. Otherwise, it really is not worth the stress, move on and concentrate on better workers.
There is “recognition,” and there is RECOGNITION!
Being the official bargaining unit with “formal recognition” means literally nothing if workers cannot enforce it. However, if you are trading problems in exchange for better conditions and you have got your boss sweating, you are being recognised!
An Injury to One is an Injury to All.
The aim is to shift the balance of power from the boss to the workers. Helping someone with an individual case such as a disciplinary is important, but it will not change conditions overall. The boss needs to know an individual problem relates to everyone and that all of you will all cause trouble until it is resolved.
Be prepared for setbacks.
It will not always go to plan, but that’s okay. Be patient; workers, bosses, and opportunities come and go. Something out of the blue might tip the balance in your favour. Remember to keep inoculating so that setbacks are less harmful.
Have a sense of humour! Try to make organising a pleasant alternative to work itself. All workers know a lot about how grim the situation is, but there is no point dwelling on it. Try to be positive; your vision, humour, and conviction can convince workers that you all can win.
Organise the working class, not the Left.
When you are drawing up your social map, you can note whether someone has left-wing politics but there is not much to be gained from it. Certainly do not recruit a worker to the workplace organising team or the IWW merely on the basis of their leftist identity. The ‘apolitical’ or conservative-minded person you least expect might end up being a superb organiser, while the person who talks a big game might be bloody useless!
Quit the ideological bickering!
Similarly, do not get caught up in political / ideological / historical tiffs. Demonstrate your methodology through your activity. This is a general point for all organisers and activists; what Lenin or Kropotkin said on this or that means nothing if there is no organising going on!
Work towards clear, attainable goals with benchmarks and paths to success. Vague goals like “raising awareness” are pretty immeasurable. Organise around things that make people’s lives better. In addition, when you have clear goals it is easier to know what you have and have not achieved; take stock and enjoy the victory when it comes!
Build up and respect the collective process.
Work through disagreements together, even if it takes time and reflection. Plan things collectively. Organising teams are strong when they have a plethora of knowledge, experiences, and perspectives. Likewise, do not be afraid to disagree, just try not to be a dick about it!
Protests are naff.
At worst, they are depressing and disempowering acts of mass-begging. At best, they tend to preach to the converted and rarely engage a different audience. Do not fall into the trap of endless ‘protest hopping.’ There are plenty of possible direct actions you can do instead!
Remember to log-off!
Do not rely on social media to organise; your communications end up relying on algorithms and you might not know who has seen which message. Set up phone-trees, email lists, knock on doors (maybe not in a pandemic). Try the IWW’s own Wobchat or the Interwob Forum. Ultimately, nothing beats speaking to people directly, face to face!
Organizing.work have published a really useful guide of common mistakes organisers make, and what you should do instead. Check it out!