Hannah M, editor of Industrial Worker, reviews Secrets of a Successful Organizer by Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter and relates how Wobblies can successfully use this book in their own organizing. She also spoke with author Jane Slaughter on this topic.
Secrets of a Successful Organizer by Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter is a book a fellow Wobbly introduced to me a few years back when listing some of their favorite books on labor organizing. It was published by Labor Notes in 2016, and a copy can be found in our Detroit General Membership Branch library. What I especially like about this book is how there are stories of campaigns that utilized many of these strategies throughout. It isn’t just an author preaching strategy and theory. These methods are tried-and-true and very similar to our own Organizer Training 101, with few exceptions. Seizing power through direct action is a cornerstone of both Labor Notes and the Industrial Workers of the World.
Labor Notes is different in some of its methodology which relies on utilizing labor law and contractualism, but the book itself, according to Slaughter, “gets down to the very basics of organizing that is directed, not toward professional organizers…staffers, but toward the person on the shop floor, who maybe didn’t have much experience in trying to organize their Fellow Workers.” The IWW believes that workers are the union and that workers can build a committee themselves. Secrets is a handy guide for organizers to have in their repertoire, especially if they are just starting out. Labor Notes does support contacting a union and filing for shop recognition with the National Labor Relations Board in the U.S., but really, anyone can organize for better working conditions, a fact Slaughter also related to me in our conversation about the book. Many of the victories from unions are a result of direct action and workers organizing, not the act of filing for legal recognition.
Bradbury, Brenner, and Slaughter provide examples throughout the book of workers directly seizing power in the workplace, not via shop stewards, but by themselves. Slaughter added that part of writing the book involved “trying to convince people that your Fellow Workers are not apathetic. Because apathetic means they don’t care. There are other reasons why they’re not doing anything to organize themselves, which include not knowing, and feeling hopeless, which is usually a product of the boss. Not having time is also a big one.” It’s about opening a dialogue with your Fellow Workers and introducing the idea “that it might be worthwhile to try and do something about it,” Slaughter noted. “Storytelling is a very important part of our method and we use that in our two previous books, A Troublemaker’s Handbook One (out of print) and A Troublemaker’s Handbook Two. It’s all told through stories and for several reasons. One, it’s easy and fun to read…two, to show that it can be done…Workers actually did this.”
The methods the book advocates, such as understanding what bothers your coworkers and asking them to follow up on workplace committee tasks, are universally important in workplace organizing. The IWW uses a numerical system that ranks workers in terms of how willing they are to be a part of the committee. The “bullseye” that the authors of Secrets use is very similar to the assessments Wobblies use in their campaigns. The book uses a bullseye metaphor with a “core group,” with activists on the outer concentric circle, and it is heavily implied that the core group includes the elected leaders or shop stewards. The core group is also that of “ones,” or workers who have participated in the workplace committee and carried out tasks and are vocal and active supporters. Every concentric circle is a worker. “Activists” in this context means the workers who are willing to take on tasks and engage in a great deal of the planning and acting.
“It’s important for people to understand that not everybody is going to be the same level of committed and active,” Slaughter told me. “People can get discouraged when they see themselves knocking their brains out trying to think (about) organizing all the time. So the concept is that you have your core and you have your activists and supporters, and some people who are more disengaged. That is a normal state of affairs. You can’t expect 100 percent of the workforce to be equally involved.” People grow and change and often move to different assessments or parts of this bullseye. Slaughter added, “The first campaign I ever worked on had a leader of the anti(-union forces) at the beginning. Five years later, she was the leader of the pro-union forces.” This is why it is so important to stick with assessments and continue checking in with your Fellow Workers. People do not stay in one spot in the bullseye forever.
Another thing both the IWW and Labor Notes have in common is the emphasis on small wins first in order to build momentum. The “fight for $15” and occasional walk-outs have done relatively little to further material gains, despite mass press coverage. Bradbury, Brenner, and Slaughter mention an action that workers took at a McDonald’s in Manhattan that got a lot less mention in the press but was instrumental in their organizing campaign. An air conditioning unit had been broken for years, and a worker finally fainted from the heat, so the crew walked out. The franchise owner showed up and fixed the unit the very same day. Despite this issue being “low hanging fruit” as we say in the IWW, this is the type of small victory that helps a campaign build momentum, and the authors understand that. “Start with something you can actually win,” Slaughter emphasized.
A lot of these victories are not well-known. Slaughter explained to me, in part, why. “We see strike statistics that the federal government puts out and it shows how mostly, strikes have been going down for decades and then there’s been an uptick. But they only count strikes of a thousand or more people. That’s ridiculous. Most workplaces are not a thousand people.” The aforementioned example of workers walking out of McDonalds during a shift was a strike, and the U.S. government would not have counted it in their statistics. “There’s just a lot more of that than we realize, especially these days. All those Starbucks strikes that have happened. Those are not going to count. They don’t go into the official Bureau of Labor statistics.”
Bradbury, Brenner, and Slaughter also understand that issues need to help build a strong foundation for future fights. Consider how the victory of winning this issue will help the campaign move forward. In the IWW’s Organizer Training 101, we utilize the SMART goals criterion, which specifies that demands need to be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. I think that the authors’ ideas on actions are a little more impulsive and give less guidance. But when a campaign is underground it is crucial to plan direct actions ahead of time and not spontaneously.
Talking to your coworkers is a big part of building solidarity and workers should not take action by themselves. In my experience, talking to one’s coworkers is the biggest challenge potential organizers can face. Many workplaces struggle with initially building a committee at all. The IWW understands that is a major challenge and one-on-one practice is one of the cornerstones of our Organizer Training 101. If you don’t talk to your coworkers, you are not going to get a committee off the ground. Bradbury, Brenner, and Slaughter emphasize practicing scenarios with your coworkers in case of retaliation. They also, humorously, point out that leaving a stack of flyers in the breakroom is not going to get you very far.
I don’t think there is enough in the book about inoculation and mitigating damage from the boss before it happens, but you can only pack so much into an introductory guide. It is true that workers could use Facebook groups to connect, but we have to be aware of surveillance, even when workers have the best of intentions. I was an external organizer on a campaign for a tech company, and some workers had started a Reddit group to talk about their grievances. This was not a good place for workers to organize, and it was monitored by management. I know of one campaign where well-intentioned workers walked into a restaurant and said “Let’s eat here, this place is union,” and the workers had to pretend not to know what they were talking about because it was an underground campaign. If we are relying on our “Weingarten rights” or other “rights-based language,” we are doing ourselves a disservice, because bosses can and will violate those rights, every time.
I asked Slaughter about how this book could apply to Wobblies who don’t have formally recognized unions in the National Labor Relations Act framework. (Most Wobblies practice solidarity unionism, which means that the workers are the union, no matter how small of a shop. We define a union as two or more workers organizing to improve their working conditions.)
She replied that “probably most of the book, really, could apply in a non-union workplace. We wrote it as if the reader were a member of a union because that’s traditionally been our base. But a lot of it is about some sort of direct action, the idea of marching on the boss or having a petition, or walking out. Sometimes you are more protected by the law to walk out if you don’t have a union, because your union contract probably has a no-strike clause.”
Bradbury, Brenner, and Slaughter advocate understanding labor law in the U.S. and relying upon it for protection in some cases. The IWW Organizer Training 101 emphasizes that labor law was founded in order to prevent commerce from being disrupted, not out of a feeling of altruism or empathy for striking workers. Labor law is not our friend. In fact, nine times out of ten, if an employer breaks the law, they will get away with it. Relying on our “right” to organize is a recipe for disaster. Rather than training workers on their supposed rights, we should be inoculating our fellow workers and emphasizing discretion in the early stages of a campaign to prevent bosses from retaliating when the committee is too small to fight back.
Despite this, the authors acknowledge the limitations of the grievance and contractual processes. “The contract reflects the balance of power between management and workers at the moment it was signed–but not necessarily the balance today,” they write. My experience with AFSCME was that the balance was heavily in management’s favor, and continued to tilt further and further their way with each passing year. “[Grievances] are simply the result of someone else having power over you.” They are correct that many individual issues cannot be resolved via contracts alone, but I feel they are far too optimistic about them in general. Despite unfair labor practices being resolved at a median of 78 days now, the fact is that if you file one you get labeled a troublemaker, and an employer can fire you now and pay the measly fine later.
Overall, the book is an easy-to-read introduction to the sorts of conversations labor organizers have, particularly staffers and shop stewards. There are many stories about organizing campaigns that I found helpful, even if the tactics were not perfect. There is the idea, perfected by Labor Notes, the IWW, and other solidarity organizers, that campaigns need not strive for legal recognition. Workers can organize to fix an air conditioner. In some cases, workers can strive to continue to organize and build momentum, and never stop organizing. They can even be known by the employer to exist. But solidarity unionism is a mentality to develop, not a piece of paper to sign, and the fight will not end with a contract or a hard-fought unfair labor practice.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to represent that of the IWW or Industrial Worker as a whole.
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