08. Just ask what workers want

I was working with a union branch that had completed a detailed online safety survey. It started with about 10 standard personal information questions. Followed by 30 questions that asked members to grade from 1-10 how they felt about every possible safety issue. Followed by another 30 questions about options for solving the problems. The survey was certainly thorough. But barely anyone filled it in.

It needed a rethink. Firstly, anything that takes up more than one page of A4 is usually too long. Secondly, only ask questions that are going to be of some use in your negotiations with management. I asked the branch committee: ‘What safety issues do your members regularly come to you complaining about?’ Once we had identified 15 issues, that was effectively the survey form finished.

At the top of the form was the union logo and a short introduction: ‘In the next 12 months, the union will be negotiating with management on the following safety issues: please tick the three that are most important to you’. Below this we listed the 15 issues that the reps had identified. It is important to limit the choices or workers may tick every box and the survey becomes pointless.

At the bottom we asked people to tell us the department they worked in. A small number of complaints about a hazard becomes more significant if they all come from one part of the workplace.

Finally, workers wanting more information had the option to add their name. This is a great way of spotting workers who might be prepared to help out in the future.

I asked reps to personally hand out the survey forms. The forms took no more than 20 to 30 seconds to complete. One week later, we had over 300 responses. Because the reps had done this face-to-face, the union profile had been raised. Collating the information was simple and the union was able to identify concerns members were really angry about and that required action. Union organising needn’t be complicated.