On the pace of organizing and what factors can influence it.
This article was originally posted in Fire With Fire and will be included in the Fall issue of IW, out this week!
Political organizing can sometimes feel like going over a waterfall. Things move too fast and there are a hundred things running through your mind. This is the kind of organizing we’re often told stories about in media and which many of us try to emulate, consciously or not. Other times, organizing can feel like sailing across the ocean with only the faintest breeze. You think through every possibility of how to speed things up but the situation dictates that you take a more steady approach.
I’ve had more than a few unflattering stray thoughts comparing the slow pace of organizing at my work with the pace of organizing at other people’s workplaces. But if your organizing isn’t the spitting image of impending revolution, that’s actually ok. If you’re putting in the effort and seeing progress, even if slow, your organizing can be as valuable as any other organizing.
Labor organizing with the goal of building a committee of workers at the workplace who are willing to take action is a slower kind of organizing than in other forms of political struggle. I’ve been part of numerous community campaigns that either had shorter-term goals or that were large-scale mobilizations in reaction to some horrible policy or event. In all of those cases, whether they succeeded or failed, big things happened quickly. A typical campaign like this might look like a bunch of protestors showing up to a public government meeting to protest. With enough people, enough energy, and the willingness to keep going to meetings to disrupt them until a demand is met, this can be a very effective way to win short-term gains. The flip side of this kind of organizing is that the campaigns and groups that come together quickly and burn bright tend to do so for not very long.
Talking with coworkers about workplace issues can be a long, gradual, and very rewarding experience. This kind of organizing is less about raw numbers and intensity of energy over a short time frame and is more about building up trusting relationships with coworkers over months and years that then form the basis for political action at the workplace. Quick and large campaigns tend to mobilize those people who are already passionate about an issue, while slow and steady campaigns tend to be about reaching out to people negatively affected by but not presently active around an issue and working with them gradually to come up to collective solutions to the problem. This kind of problem-solving is inherently politicizing for many. While slower organizing is less likely to win big demands quickly, it has the immense benefit of bringing more people into and thus growing our political movements instead of just re-mobilizing the same people protest after protest.
While workplace organizing of this kind is more akin to racing as the tortoise than the hare, it can be made even slower still by the particular conditions of your job. Your specific workplace conditions set the pace that your organizing takes. Slower organizing is not less valuable than faster organizing, and the same approach can’t be taken in all conditions and we shouldn’t expect that it could.
From surveying workplace campaigns over the years and looking at my own organizing, I’ve compiled an informal list of factors that seem to set the pace of workplace organizing. Many of these factors overlap with each other but are also partially distinct. With a better understanding of organizing at our workplaces, we can set more realistic and helpful expectations and goals.
Factors that Set the Pace of Workplace Organizing
It’s the boss who has the mostly unilateral authority to determine job tasks, working conditions, and punishments and rewards for workers. What workers think of their boss is perhaps the main, though not necessarily dominant, determinant of whether workers are interested in organizing. How your boss approaches the workplace has everything to do with how you should approach the workplace as an organizer, including how quickly you proceed.
(Hot shops are workplaces where people are especially agitated with a significant number of the staff ready to either take militant action like walk out on strike or to just quit in frustration. The dynamics at play in hot shops are complex and a whole other beast than I can get into here. In this article, I stick to organizing campaigns that move slowly or quickly but ignore the explosive situations in hot shops.)
Among the most important aspects of the boss that the workers are impacted by is their personality. Are they kind, mean, open and honest, passive aggressive?
In addition to the boss’s personality, the other main aspect that workers experience is their management style. Do they give workers a lot of room to do their work, do they micromanage, are they egoistic, do they put in work too, do they claim credit for more or less than they do, are they competent at their job?
Bad bosses are the antagonist of most dramatic organizing stories. Getting coworkers to think seriously about their stake in having respect on the job is often the kindling for a big campaign that can be started sooner than later. The usual workplace organizing playbook is designed mostly with this situation in mind.
I have a friend organizing in a large workplace where the boss is a cartoon villain. The boss communicates with staff mostly through assistant supervisors, doesn’t make eye contact with most staff, rarely talks with most of them, is widely viewed as just not being that good at her job, and takes every opportunity she can to cut corners on employee working conditions and pay. While that makes the job a stressful place to work, it also makes it relatively clear whose interests the boss represents, which is a crucial point in talking with coworkers to take action to improve conditions.
If your boss is nice and competent, your organizing is likely to take a different path. In those cases, trying to tell your coworkers why they don’t like their boss when they, in fact, don’t think that is a losing strategy. So if your workplace is so perfect that you wouldn’t change anything, congrats! But for the vast majority of people with nice bosses, there’s still plenty of problems in the form of low wages, lack of essential benefits like health care, understaffing, overworking, poor training, safety problems, discrimination, microaggressions, and so on.
In the nice boss situation, you have to take a somewhat more circuitous route of building relationships with people, helping people care about how they’re treated, and working with them to take action in spite of having a nice boss. This is frankly a more gradual process than one where you can polarize a workplace against the image of the bad boss and bad working conditions together. It’s not necessarily any more difficult than organizing against a bad boss, but it probably will take longer and you will have to be creative in finding ways to build up a committee of workers on the job willing to take action.
How exactly to organize against a nice boss deserves its own blog post, but here I just want to note its effect on the speed of your organizing.
The Level of Open Agitation among Coworkers
If people at work are openly upset about working conditions, that’s often a starting point for talking about organizing. If your coworkers don’t talk openly about workplace problems or find ways to “get by” without bringing them up or thinking about them, organizing then often takes the form of more slowly building trusting relationships with coworkers to the point where they do feel comfortable talking about what things affect them at work.
I talk about how to build relationships with coworkers in this other blog post, but here I just want to point out how this can be a longer organizing game than where people are ranting in the breakroom about Phil being the worst boss on the planet.
Staff turnover at a job can be due to all sorts of reasons. It might be due to bad working conditions, it might be because the job is seen by many as a short-term gig or some other reason. At a previous job of mine, every one of my coworkers was either doing it on the side while in college or were planning on going back to school soon.
Whatever the reason, there’s a sweet spot of staff turnover that lends itself to a quicker pace of organizing. If the turnover at a job is too high, say workers stay less than a year on average, it can be hard to build up the relationships and skill sets necessary to build up coworkers as strong organizers in their own right before they leave. If the staff turnover is too low, and workers stay at the job for 8+ years, then it can be difficult for an organizer to gain the respect and trust of long-time coworkers over a shorter time frame. Also, workers who have been around a long time are often more set in their ways, think they know everything, or have come up with ingrained and sophisticated coping strategies that are difficult to change.
I’d say a workplace where workers stay an average of 3-ish years is ideal for quickly building up a robust and sustainable organizing committee. This isn’t to say that high- or low-turnover workplaces are impossible, only that in a high turnover workplace it can take a while to find an organizing partner(s) interested in being around for long enough to have an impact. In a low-turnover workplace, you have to put the years in to really establish your relationships with coworkers and build up your presence. Turnover rate helps set the pace.
If people feel relatively secure in keeping their job, this can embolden them to take organizing more seriously and be willing to take action that might otherwise have greater risks in some other workplace. One thing that can help with this is having a mainstream union, knowing that it’s usually harder to fire someone for organizing when a workplace has a contract. A tight job market or someone’s strategic position in a company can also contribute to increased job security. Organizing always entails risks, but if the risks are a little lower, then people can more easily and sooner take action to make things better.
How Social People Are at Work
If workers get along with each other at work and there’s already a good foundation of friendliness and solidarity between coworkers, this can speed up considerably the relationship-building component of organizing. On the other hand, if workers keep to themselves, you’ll have to put more time into first creating those connections that are essential for organizing.
Having an Organizing Buddy Early On
This last one is cheating a little bit because it’s not a workplace condition like the others above but has to do with your coworker relationships over which you have more immediate control. But I feel like including it because it can greatly accelerate your organizing.
Starting to organize at work by oneself is a difficult task. When it’s done successfully it’s kind of a wonder to behold because organizing a workplace is so complex and can take a long time depending on the other factors noted above.
But if you have an organizing partner in crime, especially early on, you have that much more organizing capacity, that much more mutual support, that much more time to come up with and bounce ideas off each other. The usual organizing steps can be walked through that much faster.
Finding an organizing buddy early on is usually due to at least a little pure luck, which is why I think it belongs partly to workplace conditions. You either find someone else at work with an existing interest in and some experience with organizing or maybe you and a fellow organizer both get jobs intentionally around the same time at the same workplace.
An incredible amount of my own growth as an organizer has been figuring out how and why my own experience has been different from those I’ve read about and talked to. The realization that there are factors in the workplace that set the pace of organizing has been very useful for me. I no longer see my own efforts in so negative a light for not having been as quick to organize as others.
Besides sustaining my self-confidence, this has helped me gauge my mindset to the particulars of the workplace I’m at. Putting a relative time frame on my organizing trajectory keeps my mind on my goals and helps me properly assess how it’s going. Assessing one’s organizing at the right time-scale prevents one from either frantically changing strategies too frequently in such a way that prevents anyone from having a chance to succeed and from staying the course on a strategy long after it’s stopped producing results.
I’ve had to unlearn the relatively lightning pace of activism that I’ve been accustomed to in past non-workplace based organizing campaigns I’ve been a part of. Now I can think about building up a workplace organizing committee at work over a few years and feel good about that time frame. While the fruits ripen more slowly, I wouldn’t be doing this if I also didn’t think the payoffs were higher.