Organizing the workplace: Strategies and lessons learned in the struggle

In providing you with the background events leading up to the organizing effort, my hope is to convey the full context so that you can compare it to your own working conditions, and decide if organizing makes sense for you. I doubt that my situation was exceptional. You may have at one time or another experienced something like what is described below. Hopefully, if this is something you can relate to, then you can then see yourself moving forward in your own struggle. The piece will be released in three parts. The first part covers the background as well as the initial ramp-up of organizing activity until recognition. Later articles will cover struggle once recognition was reached, and the positive and negative experiences involved in building a contract.

Prologue

In 2013 the job market was limited. Only those lucky enough to be employed prior to the crash had “good” full-time employment if they could hold onto their job for dear life, along with anybody else hired in that period who was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. The level of desperation among workers had not yet subsided, although this was many years into the economic slump following the Great Recession. Employers could choose from dozens of candidates for a position such as “data entry specialist” or for a low-pay internship. In one instance, I tried to apply for a municipal government position that had an applicant cap of one thousand. The job was posted at four o’clock, and I hastily filled out the application right at four, only to be denied because the cap had been reached. The mood was grim where I lived at the time. Unemployment was over 11% and this was perceived as the new normal.

I had spent more than a year looking for full-time work after college. I had left my own home state for a big New England city that had slightly better prospects. Still, in this new city, I was nothing more than a temp worker, taking soulless assignments cleaning up spreadsheets for ghastly corporations. The cost of living was astronomical, with the need to make rent forcing me to sell parts off my car or work these jobs. Any city that had below average unemployment rates during the Great Recession had high rent—this was law of recession economics. This meant that I took any assignment to any job, and this was what kept me from having to live out of my car. By 2015 I had begun to lose hope that I would find full-time work and had begun to consider the dreaded return home—jobless and hopeless—destined to find myself constantly between meaningless jobs. Returning home meant living at home, being in the situation where my soon-retiring parent would be expecting my financial support, not the reverse. This was an untenable situation for many reasons, but biggest of all was that I knew that I had student loans, and I had the audacity to think that I deserved to find stable-enough employment to have a modest, responsible existence, where I could make my way enough to support my mother if and when she could no longer work.

When I landed a temporary assignment working in social services, I felt I must have been like the lucky ones, mentioned earlier, that happened to be at the right place at the right time. This assignment on paper was no different than the others, but soon I realized that I was working on an important annual project, and that my role was not insignificant, even as a temp worker making less than a living wage. Unlike previous assignments, there was a noble goal behind the work, even if I knew that our contribution was a small bandage over the gaping wound of one of the largest crises affecting capitalism. The project involved research design, data collection, statistical analysis, and reporting of information that would be used to allocate funding for housing. There was no realistic amount of funding that would have been able to provide the services necessary to alleviate the problems the capitalist system had created, I thought, but at least I wasn’t working in debt collection. My work was distant from the services the agency provided, but it was a critical component in the administration of those services. I include this in my story because I want to emphasize the precariousness of my living arrangements. It was beyond my expectations that I would find public sector work that was adequate, between my partner and I, to cover rent and loans. I also want to emphasize that precariousness and desperation are not excuses to avoid organizing with co-workers. In fact, as I continue this story, I will explain why organizing is a weapon against precarious employment, and certainly is beneficial in alleviating financial desperation.

Beginning

On my first day, I was thrown into a maelstrom. The organization was of course poorly staffed. There were three people hired full-time working on the data team, eight contracted employees involved in the field end of the project in the coordinator team, and one manager overseeing everyone. As a temporary hire, I worked to assist the data team, whose purpose was to design the data collection tools, collect data, analyze it, and produce reports. In accordance with maintaining my anonymity, the anonymity of others involved, and in order to avoid infusion of boring details in this story, I will limit my discussion of the details of the work. It was, however, heavy on administrative data analysis. Given the size and scope of the project and the size of the city served, I was almost surprised that it was left up to only three full-time people to do this. I was not surprised, however, since I know that many public sector jobs were cut, and the organization was running about as lean as it possibly could. This meant that the data team and the coordinator team worked very long hours. Toward the end of the first month, at the height of the chaos, the staff worked every day of the week, and for more than eight hours each day. I was required to work no more than eight hours a day because the organization could not afford to pay me overtime. I overheard, however, that the organization pushed its full-time employees to stay on site for up to sixteen straight hours. For international readers, and for those unfamiliar with “exempt” work as it exists in the United States, this means working for sixteen hours, with no guaranteed breaks, for the same pay as working eight hours. Someone working 125 hours (this really happened) in a single week made no additional income, and received no additional compensation, such as compensated time, in lieu of overtime pay. While full-time staff are required to fill out a timesheet, the timesheet is always to be filled out for 80 hours over two weeks, regardless of the real number of hours worked. Several of the coordinators that year slept at the office. One person was going broke paying for additional child care as a single parent who was virtually never home. Management was aware of the intensity of the workload, but at this point and given the culture of constant understaffing and under appreciation, this was perceived as “just part of the job.”

The working conditions I had witnessed over the course of the first few weeks did not deter me from seeking a full-time job at the agency. I knew the work was intense, but since the pay was considerably more than my temporary hourly wage, I thought of it as a necessary sacrifice to get my foot in the door. And really, getting my foot into any door was my priority. The pay in retrospect was inadequate given the amount of work and other factors such as the cost of living in the region. Similar jobs in the same city paid as much as ten thousand dollars a year more than this agency paid. Surely, though, I could use this as an opportunity to build a couple years’ experience, something that was a requirement for every entry-level job I had applied for. It was in this sense that I had felt lucky. I was poised for the position based on the skill requirements, I was quick to understand the material and the scope of the work, and I was desperate enough to be willing to do anything for a full-time job. The problem, of course, was that there were only three positions I could have applied for and they were all filled. I had to think strategically about the possibility of any one of those people leaving their position. I had to prove that I was worth keeping around for as long as I could, not only for the chance to get hired, but because I needed a steady paycheck.

The first day, I was given the simplest tasks imaginable. I moved boxes, and placed data collection sheets into their appropriate box to be shipped off to field sites where data would be collected. Within two days I was assigned to a computer, where I was told that I needed to clean up the database of volunteers. As part of data collection, thousands of volunteers sign up online and are assigned to go to different field locations. The web application failed to correctly assign volunteers. Given that there were roughly two weeks left before volunteers would be deployed, this incident was treated like an utter calamity. In messing around with the back-end of the site and making calls to hundreds of volunteers to verify field locations, I was able to get things back in working order. This impressed management, who at this point anticipated that the whole project was destined to fail. Within the first week, I was assigned additional duties as a result of my success on that task. While many of the coordinators were very good about following up and maintaining their volunteer data, one coordinator was notably absent, and their region was effectively my responsibility. The other coordinators worked closely with me to pull through and mend this problem. By the end of week 1, what became abundantly clear to me was that working at this agency was different than any of the previous work. In previous assignments, I had felt like I was completely new and inexperienced for the entire duration. In six weeks, you could still feel completely unwelcome, falling back on “I’m new” when the inevitable “Who are you again?” question is raised. Within the first week at this agency, I felt like I had worked there for six months. I had gotten to know everybody on the team, and given the type of high pressure, close quarters work, solidarity was strong among everybody involved.

At the height of data collection, a week of sheer madness takes place in which everyone involved is over-worked to the point of physical collapse. This week involves executing a project involving thousands of people, essentially coordinated by a team of under fifteen people. The fact that it happens at all amazes me. The fact that it happens annually, on schedule, with so few people behind the project, is astonishing. Being a part of the organization of this project taught me a great deal of knowledge in a short amount of time. It dispelled a lot of illusions that I had about government work. For one, although I was never much for believing in the stereotypical “cushy government job,” working for this agency demonstrated to me that this was often a complete myth. Certainly somewhere, some administrator is sitting at a cubicle, doing nothing and living easy off their government salary. I would suggest that this is rarely true in the “real world” of public sector work. A lot of the work is done by people who are expected to do the work of five people for the salary of one person, or four-fifths the salary of the private sector market rate for the same job. A lot of it is thankless and goes unappreciated because it is either invisible, or it is so far removed from the public-facing element that it might as well be. I encourage the reader to question their understanding of who makes sure that there are an adequate number of garbage trucks and sanitary workers to pick up their trash, or who is tasked with ensuring that buses show up in ordered intervals. None of this is fascinating or glorious, but a lot of it is essential for modern, advanced industrial society to exist at all.

One last invaluable lesson learned is the importance of communication with co-workers. It was not my expectation that anyone would be amenable to communist politics, but I found out quickly that often they were. If “communism” was still a word to avoid, “solidarity” and “labor” were not. I quickly learned where people stood. I learned that I was not the only one who felt that the system was a failure, that our work, as noble as it may seem, was an assignment to navigate a sinking ship. The general sentiment was that this organization was a place to carve out enough of a resumé to find permanent work somewhere else. Quickly I realized that few people who were hired before I started were there for a total of a year or more. The mission of providing social services to very needy people was perhaps just enough to motivate people to hold out for this long. Part of the problem the agency faced in its working conditions had to do with terribly high turnover and burnout, which meant that every year the annual project started from scratch, with new staff with no institutional knowledge, working off old step guides and other cryptic files saved to the network drive. These new staff would get thrown a tremendous workload that no one can realistically anticipate, only to conclude that the pay simply won’t justify another day there. The result was the manufacture of disillusioned cynics. If for one moment I could have convinced myself that there was hope to achieve the goals of the agency, that moment is long forgotten. What is still clear is that this work has value, and that it keeps some people off the streets and warm at night. What was unfortunately clear from the start was that no one valued the people who make this happen. No one considered the reality that there were people working at this agency that quietly qualified for its services, demonstrating that the “mission” was a farce. While I found that it was best to keep my politics quiet at first, I eventually realized something that I only understood theoretically, but not in practice. It turns out that hard working conditions create antagonism, that the material relation between worker and boss is the source of this antagonism. And it turns out that ideas that seem lofty, risky, or extreme can become reasonable in the moment. This moment, far removed from the grainy pictures of strong men wielding hammers or marching in strikes, now fought by office workers in cubicles, still can only be understood as struggle.

Changes

Management implied that the long hours were expected, and that they would subside once the data collection period was over. They seemed blissfully unaware that the data collection week was only one part of the whole project. Once the data is collected, there are months of data validation, analysis, and the preparation of reports. Still, the component that relies heavily on volunteers is only one of four major components in the project, and the other components required many hours of work preparing, collecting, validating, and analyzing. Extended hours would go on for months and were the norm for months prior to the big data collection component. About half of the year involved late stays in the office, constant planning of one’s life around this project. It should also be noted that taking any time off during this half-year is strongly discouraged. Most people leave within a year, and barely accrue vacation, but rarely use whatever they earned.

During the post-collection period, I was given additional tasks. It was clear to management that I had the qualifications of one of the full-time analysts. It wasn’t long before I was treated as if I was just another analyst, and people had forgotten that I was making under fifteen dollars an hour as a temporary worker. The data team relied on my skills, and I made use of them coming up with heuristics to make work go faster. I felt I had to pull my own weight given the monstrous amount of work piled on the other staff. It was shortly after the data collection week, as I saw the workload increase more rather than subside as was promised, that I started to notice the cracks. Before long, there were incidents of people taking out frustrations. Solidarity was breaking down and exhaustion turned into anger at one another. Seeing people break into tears became commonplace. Observing people drag their drained bodies into the office left me feeling guilty that I would leave at a reasonable time each day. Management likely noticed this and hinted to me that they were upset that I was leaving after 8 hours, rather than staying for ten or more. Soon I started to get the hint that they wanted me to work longer hours, and indeed I did work longer than I was legally supposed to on more than one occasion. At the time this felt like a necessity to simply keep my job, and to keep my co-workers from being mired in work until midnight.

I began to feel the effects of the high-pressure work environment. I had a long commute, so waking up early to arrive on time became a big challenge. I was always exhausted but could not sleep. I would bring work home, so it could get done without it being apparent that I was working past my allotted time. It was around this time that one of the other temps hired to work on the project quit before their contract was to end. I had asked them why, and they stated clearly that the work wasn’t worth it. The agency hired several new temporary staff, and it was strongly implied that I would train and supervise them, despite this being a clear violation of my job classification as a mere temporary data entry specialist. I did this out of the same fear that drove me to work extra hours at home. It was not long that the other temps stayed on the job, and I watched more faces enter bright and leave sullen.

Part of the job involved making phone calls to service sites all over the region. This component of the project was extremely challenging and required a team of people making calls and following up with providers. The other aspect that made this component so demanding was the deadline, which was extremely difficult to meet. Compliance was poor, and we often had to send people to providers to collect their data. With hundreds of providers to collect from, the component left the analyst working on the project in a heightened state of panic for weeks. The mental burden of the task was enough to drive anyone to protest and walk off. Eventually, this is what happened. Several days before the project was due to be completed, the staff person assigned to it quit. This component became my full-time assignment. I was approached immediately as a possible candidate for the position.

Earlier I had mentioned that there was a coordinator that did not do much work, and this coordinators’ workload became mine. This coordinator, strangely enough, became the director of the entire department responsible for the project at around this time. No one in the department thought this made any sense. After all, the coordinator was a contracted, short term position, and was the lowest on the hierarchy rung, below supervisor, manager, associate director, and then the director. Either way, this director was incompetent, extremely toxic, and ran the department despotically. Anger and confusion at this mega-promotion bubbled over and manifested as gossip. While no one at this time was convinced that the agency was running as smoothly as could be, this turn of events seemed to be the executive management throwing us off a cliff.

In response to the gossip, the new director called several witch-hunt meetings. In these meetings staff were berated like disobedient children. A typical meeting would begin with an “ice breaker” in which the department director would start, usually with something passive aggressive toward everybody in the room, or sometimes targeting one person. Following the awkward introductory theatrics, each department member would be asked to go over “areas of improvement,” which, designed like a struggle session, was intended to shame and humiliate staff for making mistakes. Failure to atone to the satisfaction of the director would lead to a later scheduled one-on-one “my door is always open” interrogation. Despite offering no support and not listening to staff concerns about overwork and other difficulties with working conditions, the director seemed to be intimately involved in every task, micromanaging coordinators’ and data analysts’ tasks, placing roadblocks between us and task completion. This level of observation allowed the director to find faults, and then use them as material for the next department meeting grilling.

With all of this, I did grow hesitant about applying for the full-time position. However, I decided to go into it planning to leave if something else came up. Much like the other staff, I felt like the job was temporary and I had low expectations. In rationalizing the petty psychological torment I was signing up for, I applied thinking that the bond I had with co-workers was worth the trouble, and that I felt obligated to them. Full-time work meant paying off loans, finding a decent studio apartment, and putting many of my immediate money troubles behind me. There were other reasons to view this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, but I often wondered what the cost would be.

First Steps

At this stage, in Spring of 2015, labor organizing was not on my mind. I was starting my first “real job” out of college, setting up my insurance and other basics. I wanted to keep out of trouble long enough that I felt secure in my job. However, given the conditions—my own experience with them, and the experience of my co-workers that were also at their breaking point—I felt compelled to talk to others about what we were all going through. Their quick and positive reception to my complaints being raised against the agency did not surprise me. I wanted to push further though. I realized that this was an opportunity to talk seriously about organizing. And by organizing, I mean coordinated struggle in the workplace, making demands, and fighting to see those demands are met.

Every workplace will have its pain points. The most important issue on the table for a non-unionized workplace will likely be wages. When thinking about working conditions, consider the hours that you work, the tasks doled out by management, role clarity and being asked to do work well outside of what you are hired to do, and general mistreatment of staff by management. Another major issue will be at-will employment. Having some due process procedure in place that can prevent spontaneous termination is something few often consider. Certainly, as union representation has diminished, so too has any memory of what it is like to have due process on the job. At-will employees are subject to the whims of their managers, who are often selected for their managerial positions based on their own willingness to fire an employee. Employees with due process can argue that just cause is needed for termination.

Before I move on to organizing strategy, I want to emphasize the purpose of this piece and my intent as an author. Communists need to understand that unions often serve reactionary functions. Union bureaucrats actively campaign for bourgeois political parties and raise money for candidates. The role of unions over the last century or more has been to shape the narrative for the working class in favor of nationalism and patriotism, and away from internationalism and revolutionary activity. Unions have acted as a mediator and bridge between capital and labor that has undermined class struggle, often at the most important turning points in world history. Many workers today are disillusioned by unions, often seeing through self-serving leadership. You may run into people who have horror stories about unions betraying workers, compelling workers away from the picket line and back to the shop floor without their demands being met. People are often more concerned with how much the union dues will be, simply because labor struggles involving unions have been few and far between, perhaps they are unaware of what benefits, financial or otherwise, ever come of them. Most labor struggle today involves old unions fighting a defensive battle in the mode of retreat, simply trying to hold onto gains won by past generations. There is a real sense among many workers I have encountered that unionizing is a lost cause, that the reaction will always be stronger, and that the compromises will be too much and the risk too great. It may help the reader to know that I tend to agree with these sentiments, but that there is still value in the labor struggle that I participated in, and there will be value in your own struggle. There is a real, tangible benefit to workers in the struggle for better working conditions and pay. These simple improvements that we can win for our class, ranging from covering increases in the cost of living to sleeping a little more soundly due to less stress in your workday, are not trivial in aggregate. But I believe, more importantly, knowing that real, tangible benefits are won through struggle is the single most important lesson in organizing. In this period in history, workers are growing disconnected from the few remaining elders that remember what it was like to participate in high-risk struggle for better working conditions—and not in defense, but in a direct assault against the capitalist class. Witnesses to these past labor victories remember them, and they internalized these events. Workers today who passively observe a labor struggle may gain the courage to do the same in their workplace.

Part I. Getting to Recognition

Sitting in the lunchroom and griping about the day was a part of my ritual. In that daily pattern, I heard stories from co-workers in every department, each department with its own seemingly irreconcilable problems. In order to cope, the standard practice is to joke sarcastically, feigning enthusiasm for the job. In August of that year, a time when workload cooled down and stress dissipated only to return in another month, co-workers of mine were sitting around the lunch table like any other day. However, what I overheard gave me pause. They were talking about other government agencies and departments that were unionized, and how they would be thrilled to have that kind of job security, pay and benefits. Although I had debated talking to coworkers about organizing prior to this, I struggled to find a moment in conversation that felt like it wouldn’t backfire. Additionally, I was never quite sure how to read others and what their attitude about organizing would be. This was the first clear indication that I wasn’t alone and that there was no longer an excuse to stay silent. I decided to join the conversation. The two co-workers in question worked at the agency for longer than I had, and had stories of their own that seemed to top the worst of mine. Before lunch had ended, I suggested that we talk again about the subject. If I recall correctly, we made jokes about how dangerous is was to even say the word “union.” Later in the day I bumped into one of the two co-workers, and she confirmed that she was serious about meeting up outside of work to talk about organizing. For the remainder of the day I sat at my desk, trying to think of what steps to take. I knew there were unionized workplaces, and non-union workplaces, and in spite of my political convictions I honestly had no idea where to start. I wanted to be prepared before any serious discussion took place. The first resource I could think of was the Internet.

What I was able to ascertain from Internet searches made me realize that there really wasn’t much out there in terms of a guidebook on how to organize. Most memorably the short and sweet guide, produced by the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers Union, pointed me in the right direction. However, a guide like this can only tell you the most basic steps necessary to organizing. It cannot prepare you for the real act of speaking to co-workers, and of coordinating the effort. If you have never seen organizing in action, you will need to improvise, and take leaps of faith from time to time, but you will always want to be careful. In the case of the lunch break conversation, having that conversation felt dangerous. The reality is that it was risky. Not only did I not know how my co-workers felt about organizing, but what I was not aware of at the time was that certain managers were strongly rabidly anti-union, and would have started the retaliation clock ticking if they had heard us talking. I would only find this out later.

We met again shortly after the first conversation. We agreed that working conditions as they stood were not adequate and that something had to be done. We talked through options. First, we acknowledged that our best gamble on the success of the whole endeavor would be to reach out to a union local that represented workers like us. We were not certain this was the local or the union for us, and we were not sure if they would have answers for us. However, we thought it would be a good place to start because they had presence in our city, and any organizers that they had working for them would likely be familiar with the environment, conditions, and the culture of our co-workers. I volunteered to give a call to the local and see if they had any interest in working with us.

At this point, my major concern was the union itself. I considered alternatives, like simply organizing independently and making demands with no backing from a local. I considered the IWW or alternatives to the more reactionary and established unions. I came to the conclusion that the organizing effort had to succeed in getting its demands met, and given the high risk of retaliation, we were going to need to win legal protections.

Deciding on a labor union meant moving forward with contacting an external organizer. The union local we contacted was surprisingly eager to work with us and to send someone out to meet. This external organizer met with us, the group that formed into a “union organizing committee,” at this point consisting of three staff. She was there not to direct the effort, but to provide us with strategic advice and assistance where and when needed. She was surprised that we had formed a committee and had progressed as far as we had. She mentioned that most people who contact a union in hopes to organize are single individuals with no concrete plan. Our plan was to continue with our approach and prepare for the formation of a committee that consisted of at least one member from each major department. At this point, we acknowledged that we were off to a good start, and that we were ready to carefully start talking to other coworkers to build this committee.

In the beginning, you will not want to go wide with outreach looking for support. Instead, you will need to learn how to listen. Pay close attention to what others are telling you. Try to figure out where they stand politically on related topics. Try to steer conversation in the direction of working conditions. If you get resistance, back off and try talking to someone else. If you get a positive response, you will likely be able to tell immediately, but don’t get ahead of yourself. Know the political atmosphere, and stay observant of the “ideological place” your coworkers are coming from. They are not going to be natural born communists, and some will be rather conservative. But don’t write them off, and don’t underestimate them. Before I began getting to know coworkers better, the agency seemed to be dominated by mainstream liberalism, traditionalism, and a general “you’re on your own” individualist attitude. I was surprised to meet anarchists and other leftists throughout my activity. Overall, a wide spectrum of ideology was represented, but among just about everybody, there was uncertainty and hesitation.

The resistance to the idea of a union that I encountered was couched in a larger critique of unions. Often people would argue that unions are ineffective or disinterested bodies that provide too few protections, and seek to perpetuate themselves. My response became refined over time, but it was important to stay consistent and to avoid lying. I emphasized that the actions in our struggle against the boss were our actions. I focused my emphasis on the ability that the workers in our agency have to halt all work. Ultimately, neither “the union” nor upper management were a source of strength. The power was all ours. If we agreed to an action, management can only sit idly by and watch us take control of the situation. They are powerless to make the organization run if we choose to make it stop. This message is convincing and powerful for a lot of people. It is a reality that exists even in the absence of a union. It is the always-present state of the relation between workers and bosses. Often we get so wrapped up in acknowledging and submitting to the chain-of-command in our workplace, that we forget who outnumbers who, and who actually produces the good, service, or product that represents the reason why we bother to come into the office in the first place.

Fear of getting fired is a major deterrent for support, for obvious reasons rooted in material necessity. However, even the fear of getting fired can be assuaged by pointing out that any one of us punished for our organizing activity is backed by the rest of us that are willing to take action.

I made note to be discreet when organizing at first. Staying somewhat secretive early on is important, considering that any talk of solidarity actions in the event of retaliation or terminations is hollow until you have the support that you need. Making the case that we are building our collective strength is the single most effective and persuasive argument. It was also by and large the least cynical argument. Some people are interested more in money or better benefits and that alone is enough of a motivator for their support. For many, the legal protections were persuasive. Due process or binding arbitration, although often undermined, convinced a number of people that the success of this struggle was going to provide more job security. I was often weary of relying upon this argument, however, because of the weakness of legal protections we have today. If I resorted to citing any protections we were to gain from a contract, I made sure to emphasize that the power behind any contract is always the power that we were willing to wield, by taking action or stopping work if the agreement is violated. No contract is worth a damn if you can’t get the workplace to commit to an action in defense of the agreement.

The newly formed committee discussed these points and engaged coworkers who we agreed would be the best candidates for committee membership. An important step in organizing is finding the people who will go the extra steps necessary to maintain momentum and to build trust and to develop lasting connections with coworkers. These core members become a committee that represents every large department in the agency with at least one person. Before you move beyond committee formation, you will need to plan for the following stage, which is called “recognition.” Recognition is the process of collecting signed union cards that represent a vote of confidence in the organizing effort. Once you have an emerging committee with at least half of the departments represented, you will want to start thinking deeply about the organizational structure of your workplace. Our committee collected names and personal email addresses of members of the “bargaining unit,” organized by department, title, and level of support for the organizing effort. Union membership is determined by job classification and level of authority a worker has within the hierarchy of their workplace. Our classification was the lowest in the hierarchy and consisted of non-supervisor staff. It contained the largest share of staff. This is good in one sense, since it means that we have a great deal of power within the agency, but it also means that we need to cover a lot of ground in order to reach majority support. For recognition, this means we will need fifty percent plus one support from a the largest share of agency staff. Unless you are organizing a tiny workplace, you will want more than a simple majority. You should set a goal of more than sixty percent of your bargaining unit signing a recognition card. In order to quantify this goal, you will need to know exactly how many people are employed, and exactly what their classification is. If you can get a copy of your workplace organizational chart, this will be extremely useful in determining your progress.

Support tends to snowball during the recognition process. You will likely get a small number of enthusiastic supporters early. These people tend to stand out based on their attitude toward current working conditions. Identify these people first, and find out if they are willing to chip in more support than just a recognition card. There is a high probability that you will encounter die-hard anti-union coworkers as well, (e.g., “My father was a union man and he got laid off and lost his pension!”). The obvious advice here is that you will not get through to everyone, and to of course pick your battles wisely. Not everyone is either a major supporter or major detractor. Many people fall in the middle somewhere. Expect to run into coworkers that will claim to support you, but that support never goes beyond support in spirit. Typically they won’t sign a card, but they will look the other way if you are talking to other coworkers in their vicinity. They might come to meetings and help in other ways, but are fearful that signing a card will somehow “mark” them. Be careful with coworkers that are this indecisive. They may be motivated out of fear. They may have hopes for a promotion out of the bargaining unit in the near future, and they might fear losing the promotion opportunity outright if management found out they support the organizing effort. There is always the chance that they might switch sides. Beware of fence straddlers that will show interest in organizing, but who will bog you down with questions about dues, contractual minutiae, and other obligations that they fear will emerge as a result of a signed union contract. These folks tend to be unsure about everything, and convincing them to choose sides should not be your highest priority until you are certain you have reached out to everybody else, and you still need more recognition cards.

There is one more type of coworker that we encountered while organizing. This faction, whom I refer to as “the loyalists,” will work diligently to undermine your efforts, perhaps by providing information directly to management, or by subtle sabotage of your meetings. Certainly, management will play the role of loyalist if there is no staff person that is willing to spy for information on your activity. Rank-and-file loyalists are more of a threat than managers, since they can weasel their way into meetings and justify their presence with phony enthusiasm. The danger of a loyalist as a participant in your organizing cannot be overstated. They can be difficult to identify, and maybe you will be lucky enough to have a workplace without a loyalist. Pay close attention to who they socialize with, what their attitudes about management are, and keep an ear out for slip-ups.

In my workplace, each worker had their own cubicle. Well, there was one cubicle that was shared between two people. I was one of those people, and the other person had a fondness for management. This arrangement didn’t come to fruition until several months into active organizing. It is possible that this was just a coincidence. However, given the sheer amount of supervision and the repeated one-on-one meetings with management that preceded my desk being moved, the coincidence angle seems less and less plausible. It is more likely that I was being monitored for my activity. Although we maintained our secrecy as best as we could, it was clear that some information had gotten out. We took it as an inevitability, and did not let it deter us. I continued with my office work and organizing activity, and focused on making myself out to be a model employee during period of heightened suspicion. I came in to work early, closely monitored lunch and other breaks, and tried my best to meet deadlines. I had encouraged anybody who supported organizing to do the same. Dubious lines of questioning about working conditions, about open door policies, or intrusive questions about coworkers fall neatly under the category of retaliation, and would be unfair labor practices in a legal sense. In this stage of organizing, you are not protected by a contract. You are protected by a law that states that it is illegal to fire you for attempting to organize a union. Obviously, your employer can fire you for doing something other than working during hours, but in spite of this law, there still is nothing to stop your employer from firing you if you are an at-will employee. At-will employment means that they can “terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability.”1 Clearly, if you can fire someone “for no reason without incurring legal liability,” then you can indeed fire someone for an illegal reason, and simply claim it was for no reason at all.

Keeping tabs on growth in the organizing was vital for adjusting our goal. If the total number of employees in your organization increases, you will need additional recognition cards to reach your sixty percent goal. It took us months to achieve the necessary number of cards for recognition. During that time, the organization grew dramatically. This was definitely coincidental with regard to our organizing, as there was new funding and plans for expansion. However, this can also be a tactic. If management is aware of your activity, they may hire new staff, even where no new staff are needed. They may use this tactic to dilute signed card majorities, but the tactic has other benefits for management. New staff are included as part of the bargaining unit, and are less likely to want to risk anything. They are less aware of the problems in the organization, which means you risk coming off as dramatic when you explain the working conditions. It was always part of my tactics to initiate new staff by taking them out for coffee and giving them the rundown on how the organization operates. I would tell them that the job is going to be rough, but that there is hope that the winning of a contract will improve things, and might even make the place tolerable for planning one’s career around. I found that many people were not ready for the sustained levels of disappointment they would encounter. In addition to waves of new recruits, the organization started experiencing increased turnover, pushing our card numbers down with each supporter who found a (union) job elsewhere with better compensation and, less stress, and sometimes even a defined benefits pension. Our committee met regularly, and discussed plans to push through these obstacles to reach our goal for signed cards for sixty percent of staff in just a few short months. This plan felt ambitious, but we understood that the agency had plans for doubling the number of staff over the course of the next year.

Our largest department consisted of workers who performed field services. This department was the lowest paid and had the most complaints against management. Consensus among workers in this department was that their labor was treated as nothing more than sanitation work, and that this attitude put many of the workers in vulnerable situations. The population that the department worked with were themselves vulnerable, and this escalated their concerns over working conditions. Workers under high financial and emotional stress, that are frequently sent into physically hazardous conditions to provide their services, are more likely to experience illness, injury, or burnout. It was apparent that the way the department was set up, these staff were going to be very receptive to organizing. Our committee delegate from this department had a lot of work to do. They had dozens of contacts to maintain, many of whom were only in the office for a few hours on a given day. The workers were issued phones used to maintain contact with one another, but it was well understood that these phones were regularly surveilled and that communication had to be conducted either in person or via personal cell phones. All operations had to be covert and very careful.

Despite extra caution owing to being under close supervision by management in this department, our committee member and organizer faced retaliation after some weeks of successful organizing. Management brought them into the office to discuss some unspecified problem. The unnecessary incident involved another staff member and our committee member talking about the union. Both were written up and reprimanded. The event gave us pause, but we were committed to any action necessary to prevent or reverse further punishment or termination if it came to that. The reprimanding backfired in the end, when any mention of it brought workers in the department closer to our cause. By recognition, I can safely say that every eligible member of the bargaining unit in that department had signed a card, and was ready to fight if management threw another punch.

The most anxiety-provoking month of my employment in the organization was the period in which we were under ten recognition cards short of our goal. I spent the day pacing from cubicle to cubicle, using any real-work excuse I could to justify paying visits to coworkers that had been holding out on signing a card. The committee likely walked to DC and back making rounds. We all learned our talking points, our strengths and weaknesses in making convincing arguments. I came to memorize everybody’s most important issue, and spent off-time thinking of ways to articulate a better case for why signing a card would be in their interest.

Every card was a small victory, but we knew the focus on getting to sixty percent was necessary. Given the rapid expansion of the agency, it became apparent that we struggled to maintain an up-to-date employee roster. If we relied on a mere simple majority, we risked miscalculating and falling short. Once the labor relations board receives your recognition cards, there is no hiding your organizing activity. The organization will be notified quickly that the cards were submitted. If we had fallen short, we could have risked a battle between management and the organizers that none of us could afford. Retaliation was kept to a minimum by our strict adherence to work rules and secrecy. Filing for recognition blows the door off of the whole operation. Having a majority doesn’t necessarily mean victory either. Employers can dispute the results and force an election. Elections must follow certain rules, and by law the employers and union organizers must adhere to rules that make it challenging to persuade coworkers to vote yes. In spite of the obvious benefits of staying covert about organizing until the recognition cards were filed, we decided after discussion to go public shortly before filing. We reasoned that this would encourage support, if we spoke out in support of our efforts, and that this support would bring us to where we needed to be.

By putting ourselves in directly in confrontation with management, we showed that staff could now stand up and take action, and given our strength it was very unlikely that the agency would retaliate against us. I agreed to be one of the people that would speak, and the organizer from our field-work department also agreed to speak. They would make a short speech at the end of the all-staff meeting, taking advantage of the questions segment management afforded us (up until this point), and I would speak at the commission meeting, which is a meeting of the governing body appointed to oversee our agency. Since our all-staff meeting and the commission meeting were scheduled close together, we planned to use this several week period to collect our last few cards.

Prior to delivering my speech, through determination and a lot of persuasion, we were able to get enough cards to file for recognition with the labor relations board. We cut it very close, but the benefit to filing beforehand meant that we could change our statement to management. We could now ask for their cooperation, and acceptance of our decision to form the union. If they were to accept the decision of the labor board, this would trigger no election and would mean we wouldn’t need to deal with a long and drawn out election campaign. It is possible that they could dispute our filing, or pull some other legal maneuver to prolong the process in hopes that we will lose steam. Strategically, preemptively coming out against any of these actions puts management on notice that we are aware of the multiple tricks they may use to delay recognition. From my perspective, the planned speech was a chance to be assertive and to make it known that I am backed by the collective action of the entire agency. Anyone else willing to take a stand would also be backed by this collective strength.

Standing in front of the commission was absolutely terrifying. I trembled as I delivered my speech. I requested that management not interfere with our organizing, and I laid out a case for why we were organizing. The cost of living in our city was pushing many of us into poverty. Hourly employees felt compelled to work in dangerous situations, often pressured to work overtime. Salaried workers were regularly brought to the breaking point. We all lived in a state of fear in our day to day interactions with some of the management. Most importantly, I was able to deliver the message that we had filed for recognition, and that this was the time to accept our decision to organize.

Cooperation with the workers would make the transition to a union workplace easier for everybody. I gave no indication that actions or strikes were on the table. In fact I didn’t mention them at all. It is important as an organizer to avoid resorting to more aggressive tactics until they become necessary. Escalation of tactics shows that the power of the rank and file exists, and that they are willing to make small steps to express that power. It gives your coworkers the confidence to move toward more daring expressions of that power. A good escalation campaign could be to start a sticker campaign, to delivering a petition, to lunch walkouts, and then work-hour walk outs. With each step taken, coworkers become emboldened to take measures into their own hands. My hope in standing up to the commission was to start the wheels moving on a campaign of escalation that would force rapid concessions on working conditions before a contract was ever signed and executed.

1http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/at-will-employment-overview.aspx